A new study from the University of Tel Aviv offers a new and unique treatment for AIDS that can be developed into a vaccine or a one-off treatment for HIV patients. The study examined the engineering of type B white blood cells in a patient’s body to release anti-HIV antibodies in response to the virus. The study was led by Dr. Adi Barzel and PhD student Alessio Nehmad, both from the School of Neurobiology, Biochemistry and Biophysics at the George S. Wise Faculty of Science and the Dothan Center for Advanced Therapies in collaboration with Sourasky Medical Center (Ihilov). The study was conducted in collaboration with additional researchers from Israel and the United States. The study was published in the journal nature.
In the last two decades, the lives of many AIDS patients have improved as a result of treatments that change the disease from deadly to chronic. However, we still have a long way to go before a treatment can be found to provide patients with a lasting cure. A possible way to do this, with a single injection, was first developed in Dr. Barzel’s laboratory. The technique, developed in his lab, uses white blood cells of type B, which would be genetically engineered in the patient’s body, to release neutralizing antibodies against the HIV virus that causes the disease.
The cells are a type of white blood cell responsible for generating antibodies against viruses, bacteria and more. B-cells are formed in the bone marrow. When mature, B cells move in the blood and lymphatic system and from there to various parts of the body.
Dr. Barzel explains: “So far, only a few scientists, including us, have been able to design B cells outside the body, and in this study we were the first to do so in the body and make these cells generate the desired antibodies. Genetic engineering is performed with viral carriers derived from viruses that are designed not to cause damage, but only to introduce the antibody-encoded gene into B cells in the body. In addition, in this case we were able to accurately insert the antibodies at the desired location in the genome of B cells. All model animals that received the treatment responded and had large amounts of the desired antibody in their blood. We made the antibody from the blood and made sure it was really effective in neutralizing the HIV virus in the laboratory dish. “
Genetic editing was performed with CRISPR. This is a technology based on the bacterial immune system against viruses. Bacteria use CRISPR systems as something like a molecular search engine to locate viral sequences and cut them out to deactivate them. Two biochemists who have understood the complex defense mechanism, Emmanuel Charpentier and Jennifer Dudna, have been able to redirect to the cleavage of any DNA of their choice. Since then, the technology has been used either to deactivate unwanted genes or to recover and insert desired genes. Dudna and Charpentier won international recognition when they won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020.
PhD student Alessio Nehmad explains the use of CRISPR: “We include the ability of CRISPR to direct the introduction of genes into the desired sites along with the ability of viral carriers to deliver the desired genes to the desired cells. In this way we are able to engineer the B cells inside the patient’s body. We use two viral carriers from the AAV family, one carrier encodes the desired antibody and the other carrier encodes the CRISPR system. When CRISPR cuts the desired site in the genome of B cells, it directs the introduction of the desired gene: the gene that encodes the antibody against HIV that causes AIDS. “
At the moment, the researchers explain, there is no genetic treatment for AIDS, so the possibilities for research are huge. Dr Barzel concluded: “We have developed an innovative treatment that can defeat the virus with a single injection, with the potential to significantly improve the condition of patients. When constructed B cells collide with the virus, the virus stimulates them and encourages them to divide, so we use the root cause of the disease to fight it. In addition, if the virus changes, the cells will also change accordingly to fight it, so we created the first drug that can develop in the body and defeat the viruses in the “arms race”.
Based on this study, we can expect that in the coming years we will be able to produce a cure for AIDS, additional infectious diseases and some cancers caused by a virus, such as cervical cancer, head and neck cancer and more. “
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Materials provided by University of Tel Aviv. Note: Content can be edited for style and length.