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UT-Austin, Stanford researchers strive to develop way to combat HIV

Erin Mulvane, Houston Chronicle
Published 4:39 pm, Thursday, January 24, 2013
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A new study details a method of cutting and pasting cells of the immune system so they could become resistant to HIV infection, possibly replacing patients' current drug treatments.

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and the Stanford University School of Medicine developed a process that replaces a series of cells in the immune system with a series of HIV-resistant genes, according to a release from UT-Austin.

Those diagnosed with HIV take multiple medications daily to target the disease at different stages of the process as the virus changes and mutates, and the researchers hope a gene therapy detailed in the study published this week by Molecular Therapy could one day replace the drug treatment.

Sarah Sawyer, a co-author of the study, said providing an infected person with the resistant T cells would not eradicate their viral infection, but instead would provide the patients with protected cells that would ward off the condition that typically gives rise to AIDS.

"Instead of the cocktail of multiple drugs, we provide these cells with multiple antiviral genes," Sawyer said.

The HIV virus typically enters the immune cells by latching on to certain surface proteins. The technique utilizes these proteins by latching onto the surface, creating a break in the surface and then pasting in three genes known to be resistant to the disease.

The researchers tested the process and found that T cells that were exposed to HIV were somewhat protected against the onslaught of HIV. Cells tested that had not been altered became infected within 25 days.

Matthew Porteus, associate professor of pediatrics at Stanford and a pediatric hematologist and oncologist at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, said their work is an important step forward in developing a gene therapy for HIV and may be used in the future for other conditions like sickle cell anemia. The researchers will first test cells that have the AIDS virus. Porteus said he hopes clinical trials will begin in three to five years.

"I'm very excited about what's happened already," he said.