A revolutionary breakthrough was revealed Monday in a study from Temple University, which gives new hope in the quest to find a cure for HIV. In the study, done in partnership with the University of Pittsburgh, researchers discovered that they could eliminate HIV DNA in mice with a new gene-editing technique.
One of the main roadblocks scientists have encountered on this quest is that the virus has the ability to retain small reservoirs in certain cells. Antiretroviral drugs are successful in stopping HIV from being replicated, but unfortunately, they cannot rid the body of those few reservoirs. If the medication is stopped, the virus then has the ability to “wake up” and begin replicating again.
This is precisely why the new discovery is so promising. Its fancy science name is CRISPR/Cas9—but you can think of it as molecular scissors. Two genetic components are combined to work together as sort of an HIV search-and-destroy team. One component (a synthetic called “guide RNA”) searches out the reservoired cells, and the other component (an enzyme) destroys the virus—in essence, “snipping” it out the cells.
Possibly the most promising part of the discovery of the study is that the technique was successful in eliminating the HIV DNA in mice that had just acquired the virus, as well as mice who were in latent stages of the virus. Kamel Khalil, co-leader of the study, says the next step would be to conduct the same study using primates, in which the virus behaves much more similarly to human HIV.
This ability to essentially “edit genes” could potentially be a medical revolution, not only in finding a cure for HIV, but for certain types of cancers as well. With gene-editing technology being very new (it’s only about six years old), a lot more research needs to be done. The University of Pennsylvania was approved by the federal government last year to conduct research in fighting certain types of cancer, but is still awaiting approval by the FDA.