Menu Menu

Could gene-editing cure HIV?

Scientists say they’ve been able to literally cut out the ‘bad’ bits of DNA from infected cells to eliminate HIV in patients using the Nobel Prize-winning technology CRISPR.

During the last few years, scientists have made strides towards treating diseases through gene-editing technology, their most promising breakthrough being the discovery of CRISPR.

The essence of CRISPR is simple: it’s a means of finding a specific bit of DNA inside a cell.

After that, the next step is to store the genetic code of a virus once it’s encountered so that the next time it tries to attack, the bacteria recognise the virus and remain unaffected. In other words, it has gained immunity.

Though still in its early stages, CRISPR has already showed promise – and won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry – in clinical trials for the treatment of cancer, blood disorders, and cystic fibrosis.

And in the quest to optimise human health, it’s even been considered as a means of preventing diseases from ever emerging in the first place with an ethically questionable ‘designer baby’ process that involves giving embryos natural immunity from the start of their growth.

Most recently, it’s raised hopes for an eventual cure to HIV, which has raged around the world for decades, causing ineffable deaths.

According to WHO, there were approximately 39 million people across the globe with HIV in 2022, 37.5 million of which were adults, 1.5 million of which were children younger than 15, and 53% of which were women and girls.

The current figures are unknown.

Since the immunodeficiency virus initially emerged in the population, science has played a key role in tackling the epidemic.

And while hundreds of thousands still die from HIV-related causes annually, available remedies such as antiretroviral therapy – which also greatly reduces the risk of transmission – continue to help more and more of those testing positive live longer, healthier lives.

Despite this considerable progress, however, efforts to cure HIV have been unsuccessful.

Now, scientists at the University of Amsterdam have presented early findings of a ‘proof of concept’ gene-editing process that eliminates any trace of ‘dormant’ HIV cell samples.

Working essentially as scissors, but at the molecular level, they’ve been able to use CRISPR to literally cut the ‘bad’ bits of DNA from infected cells so they can be removed or inactivated.

‘We have developed an efficient combinatorial CRISPR-attack on the HIV virus in various cells and the locations where it can be hidden in reservoirs, and demonstrated that therapeutics can be specifically delivered to the cells of interest,’ said project lead Elena Herrera Carrillo in a statement.

‘These findings represent a pivotal advancement towards designing a cure strategy.’

While it’s still far too early to conclude whether CRISPR could be used to cure HIV once and for all (let alone whether it’s safe and effective in the long-run) scientists are hopeful that this is on the horizon.

‘Much more work will be needed to demonstrate results in these cell assays can happen in an entire body for a future therapy,’ Dr James Dixon, stem-cell and gene-therapy technologies associate professor at the University of Nottingham, tells the BBC.

‘There will be much more development needed before this could have impact on those with HIV.’