Researchers at Temple University’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine successfully eliminated the replication of the AIDS virus from live animals.
Temple collaborated with the University of Nebraska Medical Center to suppress replication of HIV in mice through a combination of gene-editing and an altered form of antiretroviral therapy, a common treatment for the virus in humans, according to a university release on July 2.
“The goal is to eliminate the virus once and for all after 38 years,” said Kamel Khalili, the director of Temple’s HIV research lab.
The research team first engineered “crystals” of antiviral drugs to target and suppress the replication of HIV. Then, a gene-editing technology named CRISPR-Cas9 rid cells in the body of viral DNA.
One-third of the mice contained no trace of HIV DNA by the end of the five to eight week examination period.
The altered form of antiretroviral therapy was co-developed by Howard Gendelman and Benson Edagwa, two researchers at UNMC. A combination of that therapy and CRISPR-Cas9, a genetic technology developed by Khalili, was needed to eliminate the virus, Khalili said.
Antiretroviral therapy cannot fully eliminate the virus on its own. Once a patient stops taking the drugs, the virus will come back, Gendelman said.
An estimated 30,000 people who have the virus live in Philadelphia, according to the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. Residents are infected at a rate of five times the national average, according to AIDS Fund Philly, a local nonprofit.
In its early days, those who worked with the HIV/AIDS community underestimated the complexity of the epidemic, said Robb Reichard, the executive director of AIDS Fund Philly.
Even with this breakthrough, Reichard still wants people to understand the complexity of the virus, he said.
“I think the danger of when this kind of research or breakthrough is that it leads to this perception that we don’t have to worry about HIV anymore because of this research,” he said.
“Our work is not going to be done until 1.1 million people living with HIV have been cured or eradicated from the virus,” he added.
Temple and UNMC researchers are eager to move forward with the search to find a cure for 100 percent of the mice, Gendelman said.
The team also hopes to eliminate possible side effects of gene therapy that could affect humans, he added.
“We’re cutting out genes from the entire human genome, what if we make a mistake and cut out a gene that makes you think well, or maybe makes you write or walk,” Gendelman said.
The research team will attempt to completely eliminate the virus in a non-human primate, said Khalili, who is also the Laura H. Carnell chair of Temple’s department of neuroscience.
“Already we have seen a lot of excitement in the research community and obviously our goal is to get rid of the disease because it is still more than 35 million people are infected with HIV,” Khalili said.
Along with finding a cure, Khalili wants to ensure that around the world HIV patients have access to the proper treatment they need, he said.
“Not everybody is receiving care and getting proper treatment,” Khalili said. “[We must] make sure our cure is not just in the privileged countries, but those poorer countries who don’t have access to well-equipped hospitals and technology.”