A one-off HIV treatment on the horizon after a gene-editing mutation

We have created the first-ever drug that can evolve in the body and eliminate viruses in the “arms race”.

Tel Aviv, Israel – A new study shows that a one-time HIV vaccine is a step closer to reality. A team in Israel used gene-editing technology to engineer B-type white blood cells, which can stimulate the immune system to fight the virus.

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

“Based on this study, we can expect that over the coming years we will be able to produce a drug for AIDS, additional infectious diseases and certain types of cancer caused by a virus, such as cervical cancer, head and neck cancer and more,” Dr. Prezel says in a university statement.

We have developed an innovative treatment that can kill the virus with a one-time injection, with the potential to dramatically improve patients’ condition. When the engineered B cells encounter the virus, the virus stimulates them and encourages them to divide, so we use the underlying disease cause to fight it. Moreover, if the virus changes, the B cells will also change accordingly in order to fight it, so we created the first ever drug that can evolve in the body and eliminate viruses in the “arms race”.

What makes B cells so important for HIV treatment?

Researchers note that medicine has come a long way over the past two decades when it comes to fighting HIV. New treatments can now control the virus, turning it from a globally fatal disease to a manageable condition. However, the team acknowledges that scientists are still struggling to find a permanent cure.

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

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

So far, only a few scientists, including them, have been able to engineer B cells outside the body. In this study, we were the first to do this inside the body and then have those cells generate the required antibodies. Genetic engineering is performed using viral vectors derived from viruses that have also been engineered. We did this to avoid causing any harm, and just to bring the gene encoding the antibody to the B cells in the body,” Dr. Barzel explains.

Additionally, in this case we were able to precisely insert the antibodies into the desired site in the B cell genome. All of the lab models that underwent the treatment responded, and had large amounts of the required antibody in their blood. We produced the antibody from the blood and confirmed that it was indeed effective in neutralizing HIV in a lab dish.”

Building a “search engine” to beat viruses

The study’s authors say a gene-editing system called CRISPR made this breakthrough possible. This technique relies on the bacterial immune system, which attacks viruses. The researchers explain that bacteria use CRISPR as a molecular “search engine”, identifying the viral sequences they need to attack and then inactivating them.

“We combine the ability of CRISPR to direct the introduction of genes to desired sites together with the capabilities of viral vectors to bring desired genes into desired cells. Thus, we are able to engineer B cells inside the patient’s body. We use two viral vectors from the AAV family, one of the codes for The carrier of the desired antibody, the second carrier, codes for the CRISPR system. When CRISPR cuts the desired site in the B-cell genome, it directs the insertion of the desired gene: the genetic coding for the antibody against HIV, which causes AIDS,” says doctoral student Alessio Nahamed.

The study was published in the journal temper nature.

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