Research to revolutionise HIV treatment welcomed by Terrence Higgins Trust

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Terrence Higgins Trust has welcomed experimental research which could one day replace the need for daily HIV medication – but says further work is needed.

At the moment people living with HIV must take daily medication to control their infection.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania analysed 12 patients with HIV to see if their immune system could be bolstered through the use of gene therapy.

Scientists used “gene editing” to get rid of a protein on the patients’ immune cells that the virus must latch onto in order to invade white blood cells.

Millions of T-cells were taken from the blood and grown in the laboratory until the doctors had billions of cells to experiment with.

The team then edited the DNA inside the T-cells to give them a shielding mutation – known as CCR5-delta-32.

About 10 billion cells were then infused back in, although only around 20% were successfully modified.

The small study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, suggested the technique was safe.

It found that immune cells could be altered, and that doing so did not harm patients.

The gene editing also seemed to help fight HIV in some cases, but the findings are preliminary and researchers cautioned that widespread use of the technique is a long way off.

Professor Bruce Levine, director of the Clinical Cell and Vaccine Production Facility at the University of Pennsylvania, told the BBC: “This is a first – gene editing has not to date been used in a human trial [for HIV].

“We’ve been able to use this technology in HIV and show it is safe and feasible, so it is an evolution in the treatment of HIV from daily antiretroviral therapy.”

He said the aim was to develop a therapy that gets people away from expensive daily medication.

Jason Warriner, Clinical Director for Terrence Higgins Trust (THT) told “Effective drug treatments have transformed HIV into a manageable condition. But someone with HIV must take pills every day, which can be challenging.

“Any research that could add to our armoury of HIV treatments is welcome. This is a small trial, which, while showing promising results in a handful of patients, has proven ineffective in others.

“Further research will be needed to determine whether the treatment can offer a longer term solution.”

Some people are born with a very rare mutation that protects them from HIV.

It changes the structure of their T-cells, a part of the immune system, so that the virus cannot get inside and multiply.

The first reported person to recover from HIV, Timothy Ray Brown, had his immune system wiped out in 2007 during leukaemia treatment and then replaced with a bone marrow transplant from someone with the mutation.

But academics and HIV campaigners warned the transplant procedure Mr Brown went through was “complicated and life-threatening” and did not resemble a workable cure for HIV.

Figures released in November last year by Public Health England showed HIV infections among gay and bisexual men at a record high.