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Germans 'cut HIV out of infected cells'

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Professor Buchholz at work. Photo: DPA
14:05 CET+01:00
German scientists have managed to remove HIV from cells while leaving those cells alive - opening the door to potential cures for the disease.

Biomedicine researchers at Dresden's Technical University succeeded in curing several HIV-infected mice with the new method which uses an enzyme to cut the virus from the DNA of infected cells.

"There are various methods and similar approaches, but removing the virus from infected cells is unique," said Professor Joachim Hauber, head of the antiviral strategy section at partner research institute, Hamburg's Heinrich Pette Institute.

He said this approach was the only one so far which could actually reverse an HIV infection, leaving the treated cells healthy.

Whether this would function with people could only be established in clinical trials, he said, for which the money is not yet available.

Dresden team leader Professor Frank Buchholz said the 'molecular scissors' could be ready to use in ten years - as a somatic genetic therapy (using a patient's own gentically altered cells).

"Blood would be taken from patients and the stem cells which can form blood cells, removed," he said.

Laboratory work would introduce the crucial HIV-cutting enzyme into the stem cells, altering their DNA. They would then be put back into the patient.

The theory is that the genetically altered immune cells would reproduce, cut the HIV from infected cells - enabling them to function again.

This was the effect seen at least in part, among the mice.

"The amount of virus was clearly reduced, and even no longer to be found in the blood," said Hauber.

President of the German Aids Society, Professor Jürgen Rockstroh said he hoped funding could be found for further work on the approach.

"It is one of the most exciting things of all," he said. "There is a vague hope of cure, but that must first be proven."

The Dresden team have managed to create this enzyme - via mutation and selection - so that it identifies HIV.

"The HI-pathogen is a retrovirus which gets into the genetic substance in DNA," said Buchholz. Certain recombinase-class enzymes can cut up the DNA double helix and put it back together again in a different pattern.

The researchers have managed to manipulate the enzyme so that it can identify a particular sequence and remove it - and they say it is more than 90 percent effective in identifying the HI-virus in this way.

Hauber said the deciding phase, of bringing the approach to treating people in clinical studies, would be difficult in Germany.

"The potential is not being used," he said, claiming that pharmaceutical companies have until now shown little interest in investing in potential cures for Aids.

He and Buchholz said they would be looking for sponsors and public money for their future research.

READ MORE: Soldier infected two men with HIV

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