Researchers say they've successfully eliminated HIV from the DNA of infected mice for the first time, bringing them one step closer to curing the virus in humans.
Scientists from Temple University and the University of Nebraska Medical Center were able to eliminate the virus using a combination of gene-editing technology and a slow-release antiviral drug, according to a study published Tuesday in Nature Communications.
"The possibility exists that HIV can be cured," Howard Gendelman, chairman of UNMC's pharmacology and experimental neuroscience department and study author. "It’s going to take a little bit of time but to have the proof of concept gets us all excited."
Nearly 37 million people are living with HIV, according to UNAIDS, which if left untreated can develop into AIDS. Current HIV treatment involves daily, lifelong antiretroviral therapy (ART) which suppresses the virus' ability to replicate, but doesn't eliminate the virus from the body.
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If a patient stops taking the drugs, HIV is able to rebound because the virus is able to "integrate its DNA sequence into the genomes of cells of the immune system, where it lies dormant and beyond the reach of antiretroviral drugs," according to a press release.
Researchers used a new form of ART called LASER ART on 23 "humanized mice," animals genetically modified to bear similarities to the human immune response. They were able to control the release and metabolism of the drug which allowed it to suppress virus replication for longer period of time.
The team then excised the remaining integrated HIV genome using a gene-editing tool called CRISPR-Cas9 which allows scientists to operate on DNA to add or disable certain genes.
"That’s why we believe this technology is working because the LASER ART is reducing the virus significantly and then the CRISPR comes in and it's able to be more effective," Gendelman said. "They work at different stages, but put together they’re kind of buddies."
Gendelman emphasized that the process "only is successful if we get rid of every virus in the body." The treatment worked on 9 of the 23 mice involved.
"We had to be highly efficient and getting a third of these animals cured is amazing considering what we were up against."
Gendelman said its unclear how long it will take before clinical trials can begin noting that more research needs to be done into the potential of toxicity of gene modifying therapy and how to scale up the dose for humans.
"We're working on this day and night and we hope it'll be sooner than later, but we have some obstacles to overcome," he said. "There’s a tremendous amount of effort to move this technology forward."
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Researchers have eliminated HIV in mice for the first time. Is a cure for humans next?