‘We have created the first medication ever that can evolve in the body and defeat viruses in the ‘arms race.”
TEL AVIV, Israel — A one-time vaccine for HIV is a step closer to reality, according to a new study. A team in Israel used gene-editing technology to engineer type B white blood cells, which can trigger the immune system to fight the virus.
Dr. Adi Barzel of Tel Aviv University says this is one of the few times scientists have been able to engineer B cells outside of the human body. Their study finds that B white blood cells spark the immune system to produce more HIV-neutralizing antibodies. Currently, there is no cure for AIDS, which the HIV virus causes.
“Based on this study, we can expect that over the coming years we will be able to produce a medication for AIDS, additional infectious diseases and certain types of cancer caused by a virus, such as cervical cancer, head and neck cancer and more,” Dr. Barzel says in a university release.
“We developed an innovative treatment that may defeat the virus with a one-time injection, with the potential of bringing about tremendous improvement in the patients’ condition. When the engineered B cells encounter the virus, the virus stimulates and encourages them to divide, so we are utilizing the very cause of the disease to combat it. Furthermore, if the virus changes, the B cells will also change accordingly in order to combat it, so we have created the first medication ever that can evolve in the body and defeat viruses in the ‘arms race’.”
What makes B cells so important to HIV treatments?
Researchers note that medicine has come a long way over the last two decades when it comes to fighting HIV. New treatments can now control the virus, turning it from a universally lethal illness to a manageable condition. However, the team admits scientists are still struggling to create a permanent cure.
This genetic breakthrough, using type B white blood cells, provides a potential roadmap to one possible vaccine. The team explains that HIV destroys white blood cells which are critical to a patient’s immune defense. The new treatment involves injecting genetically-engineered B cells into a patient. From there, the B cells push the patient’s immune system to secrete more antibodies that kill the virus.
B cells are important because they generate antibodies which fight viruses, bacteria, and other threats to the body. They form in the bone marrow and move into the blood and lymphatic systems when they mature.
“Until now, only a few scientists, and we among them, had been able to engineer B cells outside of the body. In this study, we were the first to do this within body and then make those cells generate the desired antibodies. The genetic engineering is conducted with viral carriers derived from viruses that were also engineered. We did this to avoid causing any damage, and solely bring the gene coded for the antibody into the B cells in the body,” Dr. Barzel explains.
“Additionally, in this case we have been able to accurately introduce the antibodies into a desired site in the B cell genome. All lab models that had been administered the treatment responded, and had high quantities of the desired antibody in their blood. We produced the antibody from the blood and made sure it was actually effective in neutralizing the HIV virus in the lab dish.”
Building a ‘search engine’ to beat viruses
Study authors say the gene-editing system called CRISPR made this breakthrough possible. The technology is based on a bacterial immune system that attacks viruses. Researchers explain that the bacteria uses CRISPR like a molecular “search engine,” locating the viral sequences it needs to attack and then disabling them.
“We incorporate the capability of a CRISPR to direct the introduction of genes into desired sites along with the capabilities of viral carriers to bring desired genes to desired cells. Thus, we are able to engineer the B cells inside a patient’s body. We use two viral carriers of the AAV family, one carrier codes for the desired antibody and the second carrier codes the CRISPR system. When the CRISPR cuts in the desired site in the genome of the B cells it directs the introduction of the desired gene: the gene coding for the antibody against the HIV virus, which causes AIDS,” says PhD student Alessio Nehmad.
The study is published in the journal Nature.