For the first time the HIV virus, responsible for AIDS, has been completely eliminated (or eradicated, in technical terms) from animals that had contracted this disease. The announcement comes from a team of researchers from Temple University, Philadelphia, and the University of Nebraska, Omaha (USA), who published the results of their work in the scientific journal Nature Communications. The animals used were laboratory mice genetically modified to produce T helper lymphocytes – the target cells of HIV – very similar to those of humans.
This result represents a major step (we are tempted to call it a turning point) towards a real cure for AIDS, an illness that can be controlled effectively today, thanks to antiretroviral drugs (or ART), which however do not completely eliminate the virus (they block HIV replication, but are not able to destroy it).
In order to eradicate the virus the US researchers used two advanced techniques, simultaneously: one pharmacological and one genetic that, alone, are unable to “eliminate” HIV. The first technique consisted of the extreme fragmentation (micronization) of the antiretroviral drugs and their “packaging” inside nanocrystals (crystals measuring millionths of a millimeter). These nanocrystals enabled the drug to be distributed more effectively throughout the body, maintaining particularly low levels of viral replication and therefore leaving HIV dormant for long periods of time (which the researchers call LASER ART, or long-acting slow-effective release antiretroviral therapy).
Then, once the researchers managed to extensively control HIV replication in the long-term, they used the second technique, CRISPR-Cas9, which enabled the genetic code to be “cut” at specific points, eliminating defective or damaging traits, using a protein called Cas9 (this system, “copied” by a natural defence mechanism of bacteria, has revolutionized genetics since 2012 – the year in which it was presented). Thanks to CRISPR-Cas9, it was possible, literally, to remove the genetic instructions inserted by the HIV virus to replicate itself and spread throughout the body from the DNA of the T helper lymphocytes.
After the combined LASER-CRISPR treatment, the researchers managed to completely eliminate HIV in one third of the infected mice. This is the first time, as we have said, that this has been achieved, and – even if we are talking about animals here – there is a good chance that the same method will also be able to be applied to humans, so that the disease can finally be cured and not only “stalled”. Kamel Khalili, director of the Department of Neuroscience at Temple University announced that, “We will soon be starting new trials on non-human primates, and then, possibly also clinical trials in human patients within the year”.