A unique HIV treatment on the horizon after a breakthrough in gene editing

“We have created the very first drug capable of evolving in the body and defeating viruses in the ‘arms race’.

TEL-AVIV, Israel — A single HIV vaccine is one step closer to reality, according to a new study. A team in Israel has used gene-editing technology to engineer type B white blood cells, which can trigger the immune system to fight off the virus.

Dr Adi Barzel of Tel Aviv University says this is one of the few times scientists have been able to engineer B cells outside of the human body. Their study reveals that white B cells stimulate the immune system to produce more HIV-neutralizing antibodies. Currently, there is no cure for AIDS, caused by the HIV virus.

“Based on this study, we can expect that in the coming years we will be able to produce a medicine for AIDS, other infectious diseases and certain types of cancer caused by a virus, such as cervical cancer, head and neck cancer, etc.,” Dr. Barzel said in an academic statement.

“We have developed an innovative treatment that can defeat the virus with a single injection, with the potential to bring about considerable improvement in the condition of patients. When the modified B cells encounter the virus, the virus stimulates them and encourages them to divide, so we use the very cause of the disease to fight it. Moreover, if the virus changes, the B cells will also change accordingly in order to fight it, so we have created the first medicine that can evolve in the body and defeat viruses in the “arms race”.

Why are B cells so important for HIV treatments?

The researchers note that medicine has come a long way in the past two decades when it comes to fighting HIV. New treatments can now control the virus, turning it from a universally fatal disease into a manageable condition. However, the team admits that scientists are still struggling to create a permanent cure.

This genetic breakthrough, using type B white blood cells, provides a potential roadmap for a possible vaccine. The team explains that HIV destroys white blood cells that are essential for a patient’s immune defence. The new treatment involves injecting genetically modified B cells into a patient. From there, the B cells cause the patient’s immune system to secrete more antibodies that kill the virus.

B cells are important because they generate antibodies that fight off viruses, bacteria, and other threats to the body. They form in the bone marrow and travel through the blood and lymphatic systems as they mature.

“Until now, only a few scientists, including us, have been able to engineer B cells outside the body. In this study, we were the first to do this in the body and then to have these cells generate the desired antibodies. Genetic engineering is done with viral carriers derived from viruses that have also been modified. We did this to avoid causing harm and introduce only the gene encoded for the antibody into the body’s B cells,” says Dr. Barzel.

“Furthermore, in this case, we were able to precisely introduce the antibodies into a desired site of the B cell genome. All lab models that had received the treatment responded and had high amounts of the desired antibody in their blood. We produced the antibody from the blood and made sure that it was really effective in neutralizing the HIV virus in the lab box.

Build a “search engine” to fight viruses

The study authors claim that a gene-editing system called CRISPR made this breakthrough possible. The technology is based on a bacterial immune system that attacks viruses. The researchers explain that the bacterium uses CRISPR as a molecular “search engine”, locating the viral sequences it needs to attack and then deactivating them.

“We incorporate the ability of a CRISPR to direct the introduction of genes into desired sites as well as the abilities of viral carriers to deliver desired genes to desired cells. Thus, we are able to engineer the B cells inside a patient’s body. We use two viral carriers from the AAV family, one carrier codes for the desired antibody and the second carrier codes for the CRISPR system. When CRISPR cuts the desired site in the B cell genome, it directs the introduction of the desired gene: the gene coding for the antibody against the HIV virus, which causes AIDS”, explains doctoral student Alessio Nehmad.

The study is published in the journal Nature.

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