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A Single Vaccine Could Be Used To Treat AIDS, New Study Suggests

Dr Rohit Bhaskar
Dr Rohit Bhaskar
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A new and unique treatment for AIDS which may be developed into a vaccine or a one time treatment for patients with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) could soon be available. The treatment, offered by researchers from Tel Aviv University, will help type B white blood cells secrete anti-HIV antibodies in the patient's body in response to the virus. 

The study describing the findings was recently published in the journal Nature.

A one time injection against AIDS was developed in the laboratory of Dr Adi Barzel, who led the study. The technique utilises type B white blood cells that would be genetically engineered inside the patient's body to secrete neutralising antibodies against the Human Immunodeficiency Virus which causes AIDS.

What Are B Cells?

B cells are a type of white blood cells responsible for generating antibodies against viruses, bacteria and other pathogens, and are formed in the bone marrow. B cells move into the blood and lymphatic system when they mature. From there, they move to different parts of the body.

What Makes The Treatment Special?

In a statement released by Tel Aviv University, Dr Barzel explained that until now, only a few scientists, and the study team among them, had been able to engineer B Cells outside the body. He added that in the study, the researchers were the first to do this in the body and to make the cells generate desired antibodies. 

Dr Barzel explained that the genetic engineering is done with viral carriers derived from viruses that were engineered so as to not cause damage but only to bring the gene coded for the antibody into the B cells in the body. Additionally, the researchers have been able to accurately introduce the antibodies into a desired site in the B cell genome, he said.

Also, all model animals who had been administered the treatment responded and had high quantities of the desired antibody in their blood. The researchers produced the antibody from the blood and made sure it was actually effective in neutralising HIV in the lab dish, Dr Barzel said.

How Was The Gene Editing Done?

According to the study, the genetic editing was done using CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), a technology based on a bacterial immune system against viruses. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna were the two biochemists who had figured out the sophisticated defence mechanism. 

Since the discovery of the mechanism, CRISPR has been used to either disable unwanted genes or repair and insert desired genes. Doudna and Charpentier were awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry "for the development of a method for genome editing". 

How Did CRISPR Help Deliver Desired Genes To Desired Cells?

Alessio Nehmad, a researcher involved in the new study, said one incorporates the capability of a CRISPR to direct the introduction of genes into desired sites along with the capabilities of viral carriers to bring desired genes to desired cells. Therefore, the researchers were able to engineer the B cells inside the patient's body. They used two viral carriers of the Adeno-Associated Virus (AAV) family. AAV is a versatile viral vector technology that can be engineered for very specific functionality in gene therapy applications, and can be used in a wide range of applications in multiple diseases due to its unique biological and biophysical properties. 

One viral carrier used in the study codes for the desired antibody, and the second carrier codes for the CRISPR system. Nehmad said that when the CRISPR cuts in the desired site in the genome of the B cells, it directs the introduction of the desired gene. This is the gene coding for the antibody against HIV, which causes AIDS. 

What Happens When Engineer B Cells Encounter HIV?

According to the researchers, there is no genetic treatment for AIDS. Therefore, the research opportunities are vast. Dr Barzel concluded that the team developed an innovative treatment which may defeat the virus with a one-time injection, with the potential of bringing about tremendous improvement in the patients' condition. He added that when the engineered B cells encounter the virus, it stimulates and encourages the B cells to divide. Therefore, the scientists are utilising the very cause of the disease to combat it. 

He explained that if the virus changes, the B cells will also change accordingly in order to combat it. In this way, the scientists have created the first medication ever that can evolve in the body and defeat viruses in the 'arms race', he said. 

Dr Barzel added that based on the study, the team can expect that over the coming years, it will be able to produce in this way a medication for AIDS, for additional infectious diseases and for certain types of cancer caused by a virus, such as cervical cancer, head and neck cancer and more.

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