Toulon, France (PressExposure) September 30, 2011 -- The current trends in HIV research have been focused toward finding a cure for the disease -if not a sterilizing one, then a functional one. At the Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy (ICAAC) in Chicago, Illinois, earlier this month, research findings were disseminated that shined some light on a clinical study that mimics what made the Berlin Patient so famous. The Berlin Patient -an HIV-positive patient who was serendipitously cured of HIV infection after a bone marrow transplant for his leukemia- gave hope to the HIV research community that the genetic mutation that led to his cure could be researched and duplicated on a grander scale to explore the possibility of deriving a functional cure for HIV from this.
A bicoastal clinical study (one conducted on the east coast, the other on the west coast) took uninfected CD4 cells from 15 HIV-infected people and treated them with zinc finger nucleases designed to cripple the CCR5 receptor in CD4 cells -a coreceptor HIV uses to enters the cell. By rendering the CCR5 receptor useless, it becomes much harder for HIV to infect and replicate. The bone marrow donor for the Berlin Patient's transplant had this genetic mutation, which is probably one of the main reasons he was cured of HIV.
This genetic mutation occurs naturally in humans, but only about 1 percent of the world's population actually has it. It is predominantly found in those of European ancestry, and is said to be an evolutionary response to the Black Death plague of the late Middle Ages.
A unique circumstance occurred with one of the participants in the study. The participant had his HIV viral load drop to undetectable levels within weeks of stopping antiretroviral therapy after receiving the mutated T-cells. The patient already had inherited one mutated copy of the CCR5 gene. Those with one of the two mutated copies have a slower disease progression. Those with both copies are practically immune to HIV infection.
The jury's still out on whether this type of genetic modification. While a treatment to rid the body of HIV infection completely seems to be slightly out of reach at this point, a functional cure is well within our grasp. Reducing HIV to a level where medication is not needed and the body's own immune system can manage it is the goal at this point. A gene therapy procedure such as this one might prove to be expensive for developing countries to do on a wide scale, so both the cost and technology disadvantage might keep such a procedure from being implemented worldwide.