Magazine article The Futurist

Fighting AIDS through Genome Editing: A New Treatment Might Genetically Adapt Us to Resist HIV

Magazine article The Futurist

Fighting AIDS through Genome Editing: A New Treatment Might Genetically Adapt Us to Resist HIV

Article excerpt

The human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS keeps evolving in the face of new drugs. But a new "genome editing" treatment might enable humans to evolve to resist HIV. The treatment uses enzymes called zinc-finger nucleases (ZFNs) to remove problematic genes, such as that which makes a person susceptible to HIV.

"It's about giving patients the tools to suppress the HIV virus, to keep the virus count to a low level where it won't do them any harm," says Paula Cannon, a UCLA microbiologist and immunologist who is developing a ZFN therapy.

HIV destroys T cells, the blood cells that combat viruses. According to Cannon, T cells' weak link is a gene called the CCR5. If a T cell does not have the CCR5, HIV cannot harm it.

Cannon and her colleagues applied ZFN to human bone-marrow cells. Bone marrow is where all blood cells, including T cells, are manufactured. The ZFNs latched onto the cells' genomes and removed the coding for CCR5.

Then the researchers injected these modified stem cells into baby mice. The stem cells merged into the mice's bone marrow and started producing blood cells.

When the mice reached adulthood, the researchers infected them with HIV At first, blood samples from the mice exhibited high viral counts. About 12 weeks later, Cannon and her team drew blood again and could no longer detect any viruses. The mice's marrow cells were making CCR5-negative T cells that were withstanding the virus.

"I think of this as a therapy that will not necessarily completely remove the HIV from their body, but it gives them an HIV-proof immune system so that HIV won't cause the harm that it normally does," says Cannon.

She is now trying her ZFN therapy in the Los Angeles clinic City of Hope on patients who are HIV-positive and have lymphoma. She chose them because they typically undergo chemotherapy for the lymphoma, and prior to chemo, doctors remove some of their bone marrow cells to protect them from the chemicals. They reinsert the cells once chemotherapy is complete. Cannon will apply ZFN to the cells before reinsertion.

"Because the AIDS lymphoma patients already have these cells taken out and put back in them, it seems like a good place to start. We're piggybacking on this procedure," she says.

She would not be the first to try ZFN therapy on people. …

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