Israeli researchers develop gene-editing technology to fight HIV virus

Scientists from Tel Aviv University use CRISPR to modify body’s disease-fighting type B white blood cells, in what may become a treatment for the illness

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

A single human immunodeficiency (HIV) virus buds from a human immune cell, which the virus had infected, and within which the HIV virus had been replicated. (NIAID via AP)
A single human immunodeficiency (HIV) virus buds from a human immune cell, which the virus had infected, and within which the HIV virus had been replicated. (NIAID via AP)

Israeli researchers have developed a novel technology that engineers disease-fighting white blood cells to combat HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The scientists hope the method, which uses CRISPR gene editing, may lead to an effective one-time treatment for HIV and other diseases.

“We developed an innovative treatment that may defeat the virus with a one-time injection, with the potential of bringing about tremendous improvement in the patient’s condition,” said Tel Aviv University’s Dr. Adi Barzel, who led the study with PhD 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 proper treatments are available.

Researchers from Tel Aviv University, alongside other scientists from Israel and the US, said they have genetically engineered type B white blood cells to secrete anti-HIV antibodies. The technique was found to be effective in animal models.

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

The type B cells, a kind of white blood cell, create antibodies that fight viruses, bacteria and other invaders. The Israeli team used CRISPR gene editing technology to get coded antibodies into the body’s B cells.

Gene editing is a way to permanently change DNA to attack the root causes of a disease. CRISPR is a tool to cut DNA at a specific spot. It’s long been used in the lab and is being tried for other diseases.

Nehmad said in a statement explaining the technology: “When the CRISPR cuts into the desired site in the genome of the B cells, it directs the introduction of the desired gene — the gene coding for the antibody against the HIV virus.”

When the 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 utilizing the very cause of the disease to combat it,” Barzel said. “If the virus changes, the B cells will also change accordingly in order to combat it, so we have created the first medication ever that can evolve in the body and defeat viruses in the ‘arms race.’”

“We produced the antibody from the blood and made sure it was actually effective in neutralizing the HIV virus in the lab dish,” Barzel said. “All model animals who had been administered the treatment responded and had high quantities of the desired antibody in their blood.”

The researchers hope that in the coming years, the technology will lead to the production of a medication for AIDS and for other infectious diseases, including certain types of cancers.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed science journal Nature on Thursday.

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