Engineered immune cells show promising response to HIV

B cells
The technique involves engineering B cells and reintroducing them. Source: allinonemovie (via Pixabay)
Researchers have shown that engineering immune cells and reintroducing them to mice protects against HIV, this is promising for future trials.

By Holly Giles | Deputy Editor 

There are approximately 38 million people in the world living with HIV, of which close to 2 million are under 15 years old. HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that damages the cells in your immune system, weakening your ability to fight other infections and diseases. This makes patients vulnerable to opportunistic infections; this is described as AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) when the body is damaged by a number of infections and illnesses as a result of HIV immunosuppression. 

Despite improvements in treatment and care, HIV is behind many other diseases as there is still no cure or vaccine. Researchers may have taken a step forward with the latter of these two in November 2020 through engineering immune cells to fight infection.

The team at Scripps Research showed in 2019 that it was possible to reprogram antibody genes of B cells (cells in the immune system) using CRISPR so they produce neutralising HIV antibodies. 

New research built on this and showed that when these engineered B cells are reintroduced to mice they are able to multiply and mature into memory cells and plasma cells, leading to high levels of protective antibodies which remain in the body for a long period of time and provide immunity. They also showed that the engineered genes improve the efficacy of the antibodies against the virus. 

Principal investigator, Dr James Voss, explained:

“This is the first time it has been shown that modified B cells can create a durable engineered antibody response in a relevant animal model”. 

Whilst the work is currently limited to mice, he hopes that one day it can be transferred to humans in order to provide a vaccine for HIV. Current challenges include that the method requires the collection of the patient’s own cells through a blood draw to then be engineered and reintroduced. This is an expensive process so the team is now working on making this technology more accessible and affordable to those that need it the most. 

“People think of cell therapies as being expensive. We’re doing a lot of work towards trying to make the technology affordable as a preventative HIV vaccine or functional cure that would replace daily antiviral therapy,”

Voss explained.

Current treatment options for HIV are antivirals which work to stop the virus replicating in the body to prevent further damage. These need to be taken every day and in a varied combination to reduce the chance of the virus developing resistance. The medications have to be taken for life which places a huge economic burden on health services and means novel treatments are urgently needed.

Whilst the research still has many steps to go, it is an exciting proof of principle that we can enhance our immune cells to fight this deadly disease and suggests one day it may be a condition of the past. 

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