Brain and Body

HIV Evades Attempts to Remove It From Human Immune Cells With Gene Editing

April 12, 2016 | Johannes Van Zijl

Human Immunodeficiency Virus
Photo credit: Scanning electron micrograph of HIV-1, colored green, budding from a cultured lymphocyte.

Worryingly, it took the virus only two weeks!

A few weeks ago, researchers announced that they had successfully removed HIV from human immune cells using gene-editing technology called CRISPR/Cas-9, CRISPR for short.  Now, a new study argues that HIV could overcome such a specific approach.

The latest findings suggest that HIV can evolve and survive after being edited using CRISPR in just two weeks. Even more worryingly, the editing by CRISPR technology could actually be introducing new mutations into the virus, making it stronger.

Chen Liang, alongside a team of researchers at McGill University AIDS Centre in Montreal, Canada, demonstrated the effectiveness of CRISPR editing of HIV-containing immune cells in vitro, leading to the inactivation of the deadly virus. Now, it seems that the same process that inactivated HIV in Liang’s previous work could be helping the virus to escape the cell undetected and introducing new mutations.

"On the one hand, CRISPR inhibits HIV, but on the other, it helps the virus to escape and survive," Liang told New Scientist.

SEE ALSO: In a First, Gene Editing Tool Eliminates Genetic Disease From a Live Animal

But it’s not all lost yet.“The bright side is that when you know what the problem is, you can come up with the means to overcome it,” says Liang. “Just as HIV is able to escape all antiretroviral drugs, understanding how HIV escapes only helps you discover better drugs or treatments.”

Another research team, led by Kamel Khalili of Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which reported on their earlier success using CRISPR against HIV, said they were not discouraged by the latest setback.

In conversation with The Scientist, Khalili said, “It’s very nice work which offers important information related to development and use of CRISPR/Cas9 for suppressing viruses—in this case, HIV infection.”

“Their data suggest targeting a single site within a viral gene can accelerate viral escape and emergence of mutant virus that remains resistant to initial targeting molecules.” Khalili went on to say.

Nonetheless, research groups are already looking at alternative ways to overcome the recent setback. Their newly gained understanding of HIV’s ability to adapt and survive will provide valuable insight in the development of a potential cure one day.

The findings were published in the journal Nature.

You might also like: Scientists Use CRISPR Gene Editing Technology to Repair Mutation, Restore Sight

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