CRISPR/Cas9, a revolutionary gene editing technology, has shown promise in helping find a cure for HIV. Researchers at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) have built a high-throughput cell-editing platform, by altering the CRISPR/Cas9 technology, which can identify genetic mutations that make human immune cells resistant to HIV. In simple terms, the technology acts as a gene scanner to identify the necessary sequences of genetic code.
What is HIV?
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a deadly virus that causes the development of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). The virus destroys an infected individual’s immune system, increasing their susceptibility to many infections and diseases. HIV transfers from one individual to another through bodily fluids like blood, semen, vaginal fluids or breast milk. In 1980, researchers discovered AIDS, however, we still do not have a cure for the condition. Treatments for AIDS include antiretroviral drugs (ARVs), which can significantly improve the patient’s quality of life, their life expectancy and reduce the risk of transmission to other individuals.
How can the technology help find a HIV cure?
Currently, patients have to take antiretroviral drugs their whole life. A study on Science Translational Medicine found that some children’s immune systems do not develop AIDS, despite being the HIV virus infecting them. The study was covered by BBC News, where Prof Philip Goulder, University of Oxford mentioned:
Essentially, their immune system is ignoring the virus as far as possible.
The study marked the beginning of this journey to find a cure for HIV. It presented the possibility that not all humans are susceptible to the virus. Thus, it was possible to examine the genetic make-up of HIV-resistant individuals and find specific genes, which result in the immunity. CRISPR/Cas9 technology accelerates the ability to search for cures by identifying and replacing precise DNA sequences in human T cells. The genes CXCR4 and CCR5 encode receptors that the HIV strains use to enter cells. Researchers mutated these genes in human T cells and noticed that the mutation blocked HIV infection. 45 genes have been identified that link to the HIV virus’ ability to enter and integrate into host cells. Blocking these genes can pave a path towards the cure for HIV.
Researchers regarded CRISPR/Cas9 technology as the toolkit that has been missing in infectious disease research.