HIV can be eliminated with gene editing, new study suggests

The research uses a gene-editing tool called Crispr-Cas which earned the Nobel Prize in 2020 for making precise alterations to organisms.

Photo of gloved hand handling test tube in a research lab, article is about HIV research study

A team of laboratory scientists researching HIV in Amsterdam have successfully removed HIV from cells using a gene editing tool for the first time ever. The study proves that it is possible to completely eliminate all traces of HIV in a laboratory setting. 

Scientists searching for an HIV cure targeted HIV DNA using a gene-editing tool called Crispr-Cas, a groundbreaking technology that won the Nobel Prize in 2020.

The tool is able to make precise alterations to the genomes of living organisms. The revolutionary technology works like scissors, effectively cutting the DNA at particular designated points, which allows unwanted genes to be deleted and new genetic material to be introduced into the cells.

Amsterdam UMC researchers include Elena Herrera-Carrillo, Yuanling Bao, Zhenghao Yu and Pascal Kroon. They presented their findings at the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases.

Lead scientist on the HIV study, Dr Elena Herrera-Carrillo, said they have developed an efficient attack on the virus in various cells and where it may be hiding. The team said “These findings represent a pivotal advancement towards designing a cure strategy.”

One of the biggest challenges in HIV treatment is the virus’s ability to integrate its genome into the host’s DNA. HIV can infect different types of cells and tissues throughout the body, so finding a way to target the virus wherever it appears is essential.

Several antiviral drugs treat HIV infections, but the virus can rebound without life-long treatment. The CRISPR-Cas genome editing tool targets HIV DNA in a ground-breaking way.

Researchers in the study focused on parts of the virus that stay the same across all known HIV strains. The team said that while an immediate HIV cure is not on the horizon, the preliminary findings are very encouraging.

They added: “This strategy is to make this system as safe as possible for future clinical applications. We hope to achieve the right balance between efficacy and safety of this CURE strategy. Only then can we consider clinical trials of ‘cure’ in humans to disable the HIV reservoir.”

Their research represents a proof of concept. The next steps in their work will involve targeting the majority of the HIV reservoir cells and making the process as safe as possible for future clinical applications. However, the researchers were keen to emphasise, “While these preliminary findings are very encouraging, it is premature to declare that there is a functional HIV cure on the horizon.”

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