Researchers at Temple University announced this week that they completely eliminated a dormant strain of HIV embedded in human cells with a kind of "molecular scissors," raising hopes that science is a little closer to not only suppressing but actually curing the virus that causes AIDS.
Scientists at the Philadelphia university were unable to successfully use the scissors on every cell, an indication that far more work needs to be done. Yet the results of the study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, are substantial enough to have piqued the interest of the 14,000 scientists traveling to the International AIDS Conference in Australia this week.
“There is no demonstration yet that it has worked in a person, so caution is appropriate,” Clyde Crumpacker, an AIDS researcher at Harvard Medical School’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “But it is a very intriguing paper about a possible strategy for an HIV cure. This is a timely ‘proof of concept’ paper.”
The team used a new kind of gene editing technology called CRISPR, which employs a combination of a “guide RNA” and an enzyme that acts like scissors, to find and intercept latent HIV. Temple researchers led by neurovirologist Kamel Khalili built on previous studies to increase the efficiency of the guide RNA and use it to eliminate HIV code while leaving the rest of the genes intact.
“We were able to remove everything which encodes the virus – close to 99 percent of the HIV genome,” Khalili told the Inquirer. “What is left has no capacity to do anything. It’s just junk DNA.”
This excitement comes after Danish researchers successfully used an anti-cancer medication to activate HIV hiding in the cells of patients being administered anti-HIV drugs, thus exposing the infection to the immune system. The results of the study were revealed this week at the AIDS Conference in Melbourne.