Engineered Immune Cells
Molecular scissors. It might sound like something from the tool belt of a science fiction superhero. But there’s nothing fictional about this science.
Researchers from The University of Texas at Austin and the Stanford University School of Medicine have found a unique approach to keep HIV at bay among those infected with the virus. And the technique could replace the cocktail of medications that patients must take to manage HIV.
In their recently published study, Texas and Stanford researchers describe how they use a kind of “molecular scissors” to cut and paste a series of HIV-resistant genes into T cells, specialized immune cells targeted by the virus.
Sara Sawyer, assistant professor of molecular genetics and microbiology at UT and a co-author of the study, says that although the resistant T cells “would not eradicate their viral infection ... it would provide them with a protected set of T cells that would ward off the immune collapse that typically gives rise to AIDS. It would be an alternative way to manage the disease.”
HIV typically enters T cells by latching onto one of two surface proteins. By targeting a section of the DNA of one of those proteins, researchers were able to create a break in the sequence and paste in genes known to resist HIV.
“Instead of the cocktail of multiple drugs,” she says, “we provide these cells with multiple antiviral genes.”
If this proves to be a successful way to manage HIV in humans, it would be labor intensive, requiring tailoring treatment to the individual patient. But it would dramatically change the lives of HIV-infected patients, freeing them from a lifelong dependence on medication — and the nasty side effects of drugs.
Even more promising is the possibility that this gene therapy might not end with HIV. The method could be used to suppress other diseases such as sickle cell anemia. These molecular scissors may yet yield more medical breakthroughs.