Even if getting an HIV-positive blood test result isn’t the death sentence it once was, it still means a life of doctor visits, prescriptions for pharmaceutical cocktails, and stress over the next manifestation of the disease. Not to mention scaring off potential sexual partners and the depressing awareness that it will never go away.
But now there is research that just might hold the key to eventually developing a cure for AIDS. Scientists at the University of California San Francisco and the University of California Los Angeles have combined natural immunity with genetic engineering to create HIV-resistant blood cells in HIV positive individuals.1
The small study involved just six male participants with HIV. A population of their T-cells — the immune system workers that are targeted and hijacked by the disease — were separated out from blood samples. When HIV infects a T-cell, it doesn’t kill it. Instead, it turns it into a factory to make more HIV. The reason your T-cell count declines over time is because your immune system eventually recognizes the hijacked cells and tries to kill them off. This study was an attempt to see if T-cells could be reprogrammed so that they couldn’t be invaded by the HIV virus. A special genetic compound was applied to the T-cells that can actually remove certain genes from the DNA without harming the remainder of it. The modified cells were combined with growth factors to increase their numbers and then introduced into the subjects’ bodies.
After a three-month period, five out of the six volunteers showed triple the amount of engineered cells than what the scientists expected to find. Up to six percent of their total T-cells were determined to be resistant to HIV. The sixth participant still had engineered cells in his body, but they had not multiplied as quickly as expected, and certainly not as voluminously as the other subjects’ had. But all six men had larger numbers of HIV-resistant cells when followed up a year after the initial experiment.
The only reported side effect was a couple of days with symptoms similar to the flu. The hope is that even if this treatment cannot completely eradicate HIV in the body, it might be able to bolster the immune system to fight the virus and keep its levels low so that pharmaceuticals would not be needed.
This research was based on the discovery of a person with natural immunity to HIV in Berlin in 2007. This person donated blood that was transfused into an AIDS patient. The recipient’s disease then went into remission and has remained undetectable. It is believed that less than one percent of people possess this type of natural immunity. The difference is that these individuals are missing both copies of the CCR5 gene, the protein receptor on T-cells, which provides an entryway in most people for the HIV virus.
Another exciting area of progress using the body’s own genes to fight this disease lies in “elite controllers,” the name given to the one in every 200 people who get infected with HIV but never develop AIDS. They show no signs of the disease and don’t need medication, even years after infection.
Their success against HIV was also based on an abnormality in their T-cells. Instead of operating in a slow-moving swarm that can’t keep up with the quickly-mutating virus, the elite controllers’ T-cells work alone in an extremely aggressive way. They kill the virus before it can progress and react strongly to a broad range of targets, so they kill off mutations as soon as they develop.
This can help the rest of us because normal people also have these super-aggressive, broad-spectrum killer T-cells, although in very limited numbers. Scientists hope that with the right vaccine they might be able to trigger the body to create more of these cells.
So, although we are still quite a way off from a cure for AIDS, at least the research is experiencing breakthroughs more promising than anything we have seen in a long time. In the meantime, while we are waiting for that long-hoped-for vaccine, those with HIV should think about supplementing any medical program with natural antipathogens and immune boosters. Because of their complex structure, natural agents can attack pathogens on multiple fronts at once, unlike drugs that target only a single weakness in a pathogen. This makes them not only potentially more effective, but also more resistant to viral mutation, a problem faced by all antiviral and antibiotic pharmaceutical drugs. Natural immune system boosters can keep the viral load substantially down, maximizing your ability to suppress HIV until that all-elusive cure is finally found.
1 Lalezari, Jay; Mitsuyasu, R.; Deeks, S.; Wang, S. et al. “Successful and Persistent Engraftment of ZFN-M-R5-D Autologous CD4 T Cells in Aviremic HIV-infected Subjects on HAART.” 18th Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections. 28 February 2011. CROI. 19 May 2011. <http://www.retroconference.org/2011/Abstracts/41074.htm>.