A team of researchers at Temple University in Philadelphia for the first time developed a way to extract the HIV virus from human cells in a laboratory setting, opening the way for further studies that could lead to a cure for AIDS.
In a study published July 21 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers said they developed a “DNA-snipping enzyme” called nuclease and a strand of RNA capable of targeting and removing the DNA of the HIV-1 virus from human cells.
“From there, the cell’s gene repair machinery takes over, soldering the loose ends of the genome back together – resulting in virus-free cells,” according to a statement released by the Temple University School of Medicine. A genome refers to the genetic material in cells.
“This is one important step on the path toward a permanent cure for AIDS,” said Kamel Khalili, professor and chair of the Department of Neuroscience at Temple and the lead researcher in the HIV “removal” finding.
“It’s an exciting discovery, but it’s not yet ready to go into the clinic,” Khalili said in the statement released by the Temple medical school. “It’s proof of a concept that we’re moving in the right direction.”
Khalili, who heads a team of researchers that worked on the study, noted that since the human immune system cannot now remove HIV-1, a means of removing the virus through medical intervention is needed to find a cure for AIDS.
His research team found that the technique they developed to extract HIV-1 from cells might also work as a “therapeutic vaccine.” Cells treated with the nuclease-RNA combination they developed “proved impervious to HIV infection,” the Temple statement says.
The statement points out that although anti-retroviral drugs are highly effective in controlling HIV-1 for infected people, the virus remains hidden in the body’s cells and can replicate in large numbers and cause serious health consequences if treatment is interrupted.
While promising, the new technique to remove HIV-1 from human cells faces a number of challenges before the technique is ready for patients, Khalili said in the statement. Among other things, he said researchers must develop a method to deliver the therapeutic agent to every infected cell as well as a means to countering the ability of HIV to mutate.
“We are working on a number of strategies so we can take the construct into preclinical studies,” he said. “We want to eradicate every single copy of HIV-1 from the patient. That will cure AIDS. I think this technology is the way we can do it.”