The new drug which could treat HIV-1 and HIV-2 is in the process of creation. It has already been proven successful in lab monkeys. Human trials are underway.
Scientists from the Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), Jupiter, Florida (with headquarters in La Jolla, California), one of the largest and most influential biomedical research organizations in the world, have recently published their research in the journal Nature, announcing the creation of a new drug which could treat even the most resilient variants of HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). We are all familiar with the fact that HIV causes AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), a health condition which leads to the failure of the immune system, and makes the organism more susceptible to various infections and tumors.
According to estimates by WHO and UNAIDS, some 35 million people worldwide were living with HIV in 2013. Among these 35 million, 3.2 million were children. Finding the cure for HIV/AIDS has been so difficult, despite the two decades of global effort, because the virus replicates itself by inserting its genetic code into human cells, which then turn into HIV manufacturing plants. Removing all HIV’s genetic material embedded in various parts of the human body with conventional treatments has proven impossible. The new drug candidate not only blocks every strain of HIV-1 and HIV-2, but protects against infection for eight months or more after injection.
This new therapy builds upon previous research done by Farzan laboratory, Department of Microbiology and Immunobiology at Harvard Medical School, which established that protein based in the HIV-binding region, CCR5 co-receptor (which ultimately allows HIV virus to enter the cell) can be used to prevent the infection.
Based on this research, the team of scientists has developed a drug which mimics the receptors and binds to two points on the surface of the virus, preventing it from entering the cell, and rendering it inert.
Farzan’s team benefited from the previous research done by Dr. Philip Johnson, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, who found the way to deliver HIV antibodies into the tissue by means of a virus, which otherwise causes no disease. This was necessary in order to sidestep the body’s immune system. Once injected into the tissue, the assisting virus turns those cells into factories of HIV antibodies. The treatment is known as IGT (immunoprophylaxis by gene transfer).
Farzan’s team used this technique to insert the gene that produces the new protective protein (eCD4-Ig), which has proven more effective than any antibody previously developed. It is in part due to the protein’s nature, which doesn’t activate the body’s immune system against it.
So far so good. The only ‘problem’ is that the genes which are used to transfer the drug into the body are usually injected into patient’s muscular tissue, which normally doesn’t produce antibodies or the above mentioned proteins, so it needs to be genetically modified and programmed to do so.
And, here we are again on the same avenue of weighing the pros and cons of genetically engineering people. Are the prospects of enabling humans to resist infectious diseases good enough reason to open the door for gene therapies which could potentially be used to enhance human beings? Additionally, any modification of the human genome might have some side effects. Another issue researchers need to address is how to make the body stop producing the antibodies, once they are no longer needed.
Scientists are hopeful that this novel approach can yield treatments against diseases for which vaccines have proven ineffective. Among other, IGT has a huge potential for the development of vaccines against malaria, severe respiratory diseases, even Ebola.