A type of immunotherapy that’s normally reserved for cancer research could hold the key to a cure for HIV. This is according to a study that was published in PLOS Pathogens recently. The treatment is based on the use of genetically modified stem cells in the blood.
According to Newsweek, the researchers took the genetically altered blood stem cells and injected them into two monkeys. These cells make blood and they make immune system cells called NK and T cells. In the two years since the study began, researchers studied the animals to see if the blood cells would stay alive and if they would start producing cells that would attack the HIV cells. The good news is that the stem cells have survived and have multiplied in the monkeys so far. Also, one of the monkeys has shown a reduction in the HIV viral load in their system.
“In order to eradicate the virus, you really need an effective immune response. Because HIV attacks the immune response, that’s difficult to achieve,” researcher and study author Scott Kitchen from the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California said to Newsweek.“This is step one, basically showing that we can modify stem cells, that you can get lifelong cells produced.”
CAR-T Therapy: Is It The Key To Curing HIV And Cancer?
This type of treatment is called CAR-T which stands for Chimeric Anti Receptor Therapy. As Newsweek notes, it is primarily used in cancer research. In August 2017, the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of CAR-T cell therapy to provide treatment for young adults and children with B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
According to an article that appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, the therapy was originally developed as a method of upping the immune function of patients with HIV through the modification of T cells. Carl June, the immunologist behind the development of CAR-T, switched his focus from HIV to cancer when his wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1996. June’s research was stifled due to a lack of support from a pharmaceutical company which could have provided the necessary resources. Unfortunately, his wife died in 2001. But it led him to apply all of his research findings in immunology and gene therapy to the development of a cure for cancer.
Today, CAR-T is mostly used in the treatment of blood cancers but there is research going on which could lead scientists to apply it to other cancers. But if more studies lead to it becoming a cure for HIV, that doesn’t mean that it will automatically make the virus disappear. The cost of the treatment is prohibitive. As Reuters reports, it currently costs $450,000 through the drug company, Novartis, a fact that has been decried by patient-advocacy groups who are pushing for more affordable treatments.