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HIV cure now a step closer after scientists make gene editing breakthrough

The technique enabled the researchers to 'snip' out the HIV virus from human cells

Doug Bolton
Friday 01 April 2016 16:58 BST
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A young boy lights a candle at an AIDS memorial service in Belgrade, Serbia
A young boy lights a candle at an AIDS memorial service in Belgrade, Serbia (ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP/Getty Images)

American scientists have made huge strides towards finding a cure for HIV using pioneering 'gene editing' techniques.

After years of research, the team from Temple University in Pennsylvania used their technique to eliminate the virus from human cells by 'snipping' it out.

The successful experiments took place in the lab, but the team is confident the treatment could be trialled on humans within three years.

In a 2014 study, the researchers successfully managed to remove the HIV DNA from normal human cells.

This time around, they used the same technology to remove it from infected T-cells, which play a major role in the immune system, in a more accurate simulation of how the virus would be treated inside patients' bodies.

During their studies, the team drew blood from people living with HIV. Their T-cells were cultured in the lab, and then treated with the Crispr/Cas9 gene editing system, in which a targeted protein uses enzymes to remove genetic sequences (in this case, HIV DNA) from cells.

Their results definitively proved it is possible to eliminate the virus and prevent it from re-infecting cells using this treatment.

Gene editing is an important field for medical researchers, but there are fears that the process could have negative effects beyond the boundaries of the cells, resulting in further health problems.

However, using highly-detailed genome sequencing to analyse the treated cells, the scientists found they continued to grow and function normally, and didn't appear to be suffering from any side-effects.

According to Kamel Khalili, the leader of the study: "The findings are important on multiple levels."

"They demonstrate the effectiveness of our gene editing system in eliminating HIV from the DNA of T-cells and, by introducing mutations into the viral genome, permanently inactivating viral replication."

Speaking to The Telegraph, Khalili said the study has "huge potential," and added: "Based on the findings we should be entering into clincical trials within three years."

A paper detailing their study has now been published in the high-profile Scientific Reports journal.

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