In what will be hailed as an enormous step forward, researchers at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University and the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) have for the first time eliminated the virus responsible for AIDS from the genomes of living animals. The study, reported online July 2 in the journal Nature Communications, is considered a significant boost in the search for a possible cure for human HIV infection.
“Our study shows that treatment to suppress HIV replication and gene editing therapy, when given sequentially, can eliminate HIV from cells and organs of infected animals,” said Kamel Khalili, PhD, Laura H. Carnell Professor and Chair of the Department of Neuroscience, Director of the Center for Neurovirology.
Science Daily explains that “Current HIV treatment focuses on the use of antiretroviral therapy (ART). ART suppresses HIV replication but does not eliminate the virus from the body. Therefore, ART is not a cure for HIV, and it requires life-long use. If it is stopped, HIV rebounds, renewing replication and fueling the development of AIDS”.
The publication further explains that HIV is also capable of hiding, dormant and not replicating, in lymph and other tissues throughout the body. This fools the immune system into thinking that the virus has been abolished, whereupon it lowers the defensive structure it has built up over time. When the immune system drops its guard, these latent viruses can start replicating again. This is the principal reason for the fact that once a person is infected, they currently remain so for life.
This latest study has seen scientists capable of finding and eliminating all these dormant traces of the virus in the bodies of animals, meaning that there can be no later replication or bounce back from the virus.
Time Magazine reports that “In a study involving 29 mice, in some of the animals the team used a combination of a modified ARV treatment to keep the virus at low activity levels, along with a powerful gene-editing technique that snipped out HIV genes from infected cells. In various tests, the scientists could find no trace of the virus in 30% of the animals”.
It is clearly early days for these trials as the study by no means shows 100% efficacy even in small animals, but as Khalili explains, “This observation is the first step toward showing for the first time, to my knowledge, that HIV is a curable disease.”