Using genetically modified immune cells to fight HIV? No, it's not science fiction! The fact that HIV no longer has to be a death sentence is a great demonstration of how advanced medicine is today, but now scientists are taking the battle against this terrible virus to a whole new level.
HIV has killed more than 35 million people on a global scale. A new, small but exciting clinical trial shows that humanity is declaring war on this virus. Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania started off by looking at a rare gene mutation — found in about one percent of the population — that protects people from the most common strains of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus.
HIV attacks cells by attaching to proteins protruding from the surface of cells, but people with the rare mutation lack the protein CCR5-delta 32, leaving the virus unable to get a grip on their cells. The mutation has to be carried by both parents in order for a person to end up with it. Wouldn't it be great if it could be created artificially to protect people from HIV?
That's exactly what the research team, which published its findings in the New England Journal of Medicine, set out to do. They took 10 men and two women for their clinical trials, which began in 2009. The patients were all diagnosed between three and 10 years before, and were aged between 31 and 54.
The bad news is that it didn't work in all cases — only around 20 percent of cells were modified successfully. The good news is that it worked at all, and with pretty impressive results too.
Winning Over HIV
The patients relied on antiretroviral drugs before this revolutionary new treatment. Six of them were deemed well enough to come off those drugs in the period after receiving the GMO cells. As expected, HIV spread through their bodies after they ceased their regular treatments. Yet, the virus started being suppressed by the new super cells.
The problem here? Well, the clinical trial was carried out on a sample small enough to call minuscule, and it didn't even work for all patients. But that doesn't mean we have no reason for optimism, particularly if you consider the fact that one patient improved so much that HIV levels were undetectable!
Later on, researchers actually found that this patient had inherited the mutation from one parent but not the other. This may have allowed the GMO cells to work better within his system. Four patients ended up benefiting from the new treatment, while two had to return to antiretroviral drugs.
Another interesting bit of info is that the artificially created cells were found to concentrate in the stomach; the same place HIV tends to hide out and create a reservoir. This is something no existing drugs could attack, but the new treatment could offer great hopes.