Big News: Temple University Researchers Make Another Breakthrough in Hunt for AIDS Cure

It’s not every day that I get to deliver news this cool: Back in 2014, researchers at Temple University developed the technology to edit human cells and “snip out” HIV DNA. Now, in a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers at Temple have taken that technology even further, honing in on CD4+ T-cells, the cells that serve as the primary hosts for HIV-1 DNA. Using blood from human patients infected with HIV, they found that their technology not only eliminated the virus from CD4+ T-cells but also protected the cells against reinfection. And it did all of this without causing any damage to the cells.

Excuse me while I pick my jaw up off the floor.

As senior investigator on the study Dr. Kamel Khalili, professor and chair of the Department of Neuroscience at Temple, explained in a press statement:

“These findings are important on multiple levels. They demonstrate the effectiveness of our gene editing system in eliminating HIV from the DNA of CD4+ T-cells and, by introducing mutations into the viral genome, permanently inactivating its replication. Further, they show that the system can protect cells from reinfection and that the technology is safe for the cells, with no toxic effects.”

This is big, guys. Antiretroviral drugs, which HIV patients rely on now, suppress the replication of HIV in cells, but don’t eliminate the virus. So if a patient stops taking their medication, the virus rebounds and this replication of the virus is what can lead to AIDS. With this technology, though, the virus is eliminated and cells are protected from reinfection, which means no rebound. When I talked to Dr. Khalili, who’s worked with infectious diseases for the past 30 years, he said, “Now you see why I haven’t been able to sleep for months.” Because this stuff is the kind of exciting that keeps a scientist up at night.

As Dr. Khalili explains, it’s too early to give a timeline for when this technology could potentially be used on regular patients, but the key is, thanks to these findings in ex vivo experiments, they are one step closer to trying the technology out in in vivo experiments. If those go well, they’ll be able to start clinical trials. But as Dr. Khalili says, “If the technology has the capacity to enter into clinical trial for cure of AIDS, all of the steps have to be pre-examined. They have to be done correctly and very carefully.” In other words, slow and steady wins the race.

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