To get an idea of just how vulnerable the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) makes people, some cursory research should provide enough detail to understand how devastating it can be. Those carrying HIV are at serious risk of being infected with Tuberculosis (the leading cause of death amongst HIV victims), Salmonellosis, Cytomegalovirus, Candidiasis, Cryptococcal meningitis, Toxoplasmosis and on and on. While there have been huge strides in treating the symptoms of HIV and greatly expanding life expectancy of those with the virus, the complications make life an extraordinarily precarious affair.
Although it is too early to break out the champagne, a radical new approach to preventing infection has been tested on monkeys that has proved so successful that it blocked every type of HIV strain for over four months. Reports the BBC:
A radical new approach to vaccination seems to completely protect monkeys from HIV, US scientists report.
Vaccines normally train the immune system to fight an infection.
Instead, researchers at the Scripps Research Institute in California have altered the DNA of monkeys to give their cells HIV-fighting properties.
The team describe it as “a big deal” and want to start human trials soon. Independent experts say the idea is worth “strong consideration”.
This technique uses gene therapy to introduce a new section of DNA inside healthy muscle cells.
That strip of DNA contains the instructions for manufacturing the tools to neutralise HIV, which are then constantly pumped out into the bloodstream.
Experiments, reported in the journal Nature, showed the monkeys were protected from all types of HIV for at least 34 weeks.
There are of course problems with the manipulation of DNA – namely that we do not fully understand the long term consequences. The immune system responds when there is a threat, but as the article explains, the treatment essentially turns the cells “into factories that constantly spew out the artificial HIV-killers.”
Still, this can only be good news and a step in the right direction in preventing a disease that ruins (and ends) the lives of millions of people. Bravo science.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.