It is possible, according to a “proof-of-principle” study to engineer human blood stem cells into cells that can kill HIV- infected cells. The result is the equivalent of a genetic vaccine which brings new hope in the fight against HIV, as well as a wide assortment of chronic viral diseases.
In the study, researchers from the UCLA AIDS Institute took the T cells that fight infection, known as CD8 cytotoxic T lymphocytes, from a patient who was infected with HIV. The researchers identified the molecule known as the T-cell receptor – this is the molecule that guides the T cell in recognizing and killing the cells that are infected with HIV. Unfortunately these cells do not exist in great enough quantities to eliminate the virus from the body. So what did the researchers do at this point? Well, they cloned the receptor and genetically engineered human blood stem cells, put the stem cells into human thymus tissue that had been implanted in mice, so they would be able to study the reaction in a living organism.
Those engineered stem cells grew into a big population of multifunctional HIV-specific CD8 cells that could zone in on the cells containing HIV. The researchers discovered that HIV-specific T-cell receptors have to be matched to an individual, the way organs are matched to transplant patients.
What is the next step? Well, this strategy has to be tested in a more advanced model to see if it would work in the human body, according to Jerome Zack, UCLA professor of medicine.
Lead investigator Scott Kitchen said the following, “We have demonstrated in this proof-of-principle study that this type of approach can be used to engineer the human immune system, particularly the T-cell response, to specifically target HIV-infected cells.”
He went on to say that these studies lay the foundation for “further therapeutic development” that would consist of restoring damaged immune responses toward viruses that cause tumors and chronic disease.
Could all this mean that one day there will be a cure for AIDS and other viral diseases? According to this study, I would say that the answer is yes.