Israeli researchers develop gene editing technology to fight the HIV virus

Israeli researchers have developed new technology that engineers disease-fighting white blood cells to fight HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Scientists hope that the method, which uses CRISPR gene modification, could lead to effective one-time treatment for HIV and other diseases.

“We have developed an innovative treatment that could defeat the virus with a one-time injection, with the potential to make huge improvements in the patient’s condition,” said Dr Adi Barzel of Tel Aviv University, who led the study with the doctoral student Alessio Nehmad.

The HIV virus attacks the body’s white blood cells, weakening the immune system. There is no established cure for the disease, although it is now usually more of a chronic condition than the death sentence it once was, if adequate care is available.

Tel Aviv University researchers, along with other Israeli and US scientists, said they genetically engineered type B white blood cells to secrete anti-HIV antibodies. The technique has proven effective in animal models.

The new treatment involves injecting genetically modified type B white blood cells into a patient’s body, prompting the immune system to secrete antibodies to fight the HIV virus.

Type B lymphocytes, a kind of white blood cell, create antibodies that fight viruses, bacteria, and other invaders. The Israeli team used CRISPR gene editing technology to obtain antibodies encoded in the body’s B lymphocytes.

Gene editing is a way to permanently modify DNA to attack the root causes of a disease. CRISPR is a tool for cutting DNA at a specific point. It has long been used in the laboratory and has been proven for other diseases.

Nehmad said in a statement explaining the technology: “When CRISPR cuts to the desired site in the B cell genome, it directs the introduction of the desired gene, the gene that codes for the HIV antibody.”

When engineered B cells encounter the virus in the body, the presence of the virus stimulates the B cells and prompts them to divide.

“We are using the cause of the disease itself to fight it,” Barzel said. “If the virus changes, the B lymphocytes will change accordingly to fight it, so we created the first ever drug that can evolve in the body and defeat viruses in the ‘arms race’.”

“We made the antibody from the blood and made sure it was actually effective at neutralizing the HIV virus on the lab plate,” Barzel said. “All model animals given the treatment responded and had high amounts of the desired antibody in their blood.”

The researchers hope that in the next few years the technology will lead to the production of a drug for AIDS and other infectious diseases, including some types of cancer.

The study was published Thursday in the scientific journal Nature.

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