Researchers discovered a way to create a cure for HIV. The method was found useful in wiping out the virus from mice genomes, and researchers are looking towards possible human clinical trials by next year.
For decades, HIV has been one of the most elusive diseases that scientist and medical industries are trying to catch and find a cure. However, time and time again, it has proven to be challenging, given that the virus has evolved an adaptive mechanism that allowed it to effectively run and hide from all the advances sent against it.
In a journal published Today in Nature Communications, researchers detailed how a slow-acting drug and gene-editing can effectively remove the virus from biologically engineered mice genomes.
The problematic thing about HIV is it is smart enough to hide from our body’s immune system and even more from drugs that we send to attack it.
According to the study, researchers developed a two-throng approach: one is by giving samples with infected HIV cells — a modified anti-retroviral therapy or ART drugs called LASER ART or long-acting slow-effective release ART.
Conventionally, ART alone is compelling with putting the HIV at bay; it is sufficient enough to keep it at low levels that they’re undetectable in the blood, which drastically lowers the chance of spreading the virus during sexual activity or transfusions. However, LASER ART takes this a lot further.
With LASER ART, the drug shrouds with nano-crystals that once present in the body, the immune system considers them as foreign and takes them to those hard to reach cracks where the HIV hides.
Once there, the nano-crystals slowly dissolve, releasing doses of the ARV and effectively suppressing and eliminating HIV throughout the first few weeks. The drug alone is long-lasting, and infected patients only need to take it at least once a year.
However, LASER ART cannot effectively eliminate HIV from the entire genome alone. HIV rapidly replicates itself, making them virtually impossible to remove altogether.
“Over the years, we have looked at HIV as an infectious disease. But once it gets into the cell, it’s no longer an infectious disease but becomes a genetic disease because the viral genome is incorporated into the host genome,” says one of the study’s lead authors, Kamel Khalili, director of the center for neurovirology and the Comprehensive NeuroAIDS Center at Temple University’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine.
“In order to cure the disease, we need a genetic strategy. Gene editing gives us the opportunity to eliminate viral DNA from host chromosomes without hurting the host genome.”
This is where the second method comes in.
Researchers then involved the assistance of a gene-editing technology called the CRISPR-Cas9 — a technique that researchers developed and patented. What it does is explicitly tracking the virus in cells and alters the gene by removing HIV data. CRISPR-Cas9 is found effective with fewer cells, which the LASER ART did great.
Furthermore, when sequencing the genome, they discovered that the gene-editing technology only affected HIV and not the rest of the genome. It is harmless with tremendous benefits — an ideal method to curing HIV.
Researchers experimented on 29 genetically engineered mice with human T-cells infected with HIV. In one-third of the sample, researchers only involved LASER ART alone, while another third used CRISPR-Cas9. In both examples, researchers discovered that HIV rebounded rendering the experiment unsuccessful.
However, in the last third, where researchers applied the two-step approach, they discovered that the mice genome had wholly got rid of HIV.
“We were pleasantly surprised,” Khalili said. “This observation is the first step toward showing for the first time, to my knowledge, that HIV is a curable disease.”
Additionally, to further prove that their method worked, researchers also took samples of the newly-immune cells and transferred them to healthy animals to see if they developed HIV infection from any virus that may have remained. Astoundingly, none did.
“We’re pretty confident with the outcome and very pleased to see that in small animals, using the technology and method we developed, one can achieve what we call a sterilizing cure or elimination of the virus,” says Khalili.
The team is now starting to test the technique in macaque monkeys and hope to begin human clinical trials by summer 2020.
“This is not yet a cure,” says Khalili and fellow co-author Howard Gendelman, chair of pharmacology and experimental neuroscience at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
“At the very least it’s a proof of concept,” Gendelman said. “It shows it’s possible that HIV could be cured.”