With the coronavirus pandemic raging across the globe, it’s easy to forget about the other incurable virus shortening peoples’ lives worldwide.
But HIV is still very much with us. Without treatment, victims will live on average for around 10 years after infection. But a few people have a natural immunity to the disease: a rare genetic mutation in a gene called CCR5 blocks HIV from entering cells.
Now doctors are editing the genes of macaques to develop a fully HIV-resistant monkey.
One of the team working on the research is Igor Slukvin, MD, PhD, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
He told Future Human: “The CCR5 mutation is almost nonexistent in monkeys so we need to create a genetically modified animal."
“Recently, there has been a lot of interest in editing human embryos for the treatment of genetic diseases,” he added. “But we don’t know too much about the safety of editing embryos.”
Chinese scientist He Jiankui used gene editing tool CRISPR to create genetically altered human embryos that had the modified CCR5 gene in hope of creating a baby that was naturally immune to HIV.
But he was accused of violating China’s rules on medical ethics and found guilty of conducting “illegal medical practices”. He, along with several members of his team, was fined and jailed.
But if Professor Slukvin’s monkeys are immune to SIV – the monkey equivalent of HIV – it could promise radical new treatments, not only for HIV but other conditions too.
Chinese scientists used CRISPR to add the CCR5 mutation to the cells of an adult donor’s blood.
They gave the transfusion of the “edited” blood to a test subject who had both HIV and cancer. While the transfusion didn’t cure the patient’s HIV, it did send his cancer into remission.
The best way to perfect the therapy, thinks Sluvkin, is to refine it in the lab using monkeys: “If we can explore this approach in a monkey model, we could figure out the best way to get a cure in human patients,” he says.
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