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Researchers Hail Potential HIV/AIDS Breakthrough

By Jiwon Joung, Contributing Writer

Researchers at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute have discovered a possible new method to remove from blood stem cells the biological receptor that helps host the HIV virus, marking a potential breakthrough towards combating or even curing HIV/AIDS.

Inspired by the treatment of Timothy Ray Brown, the only person thought to be cured of HIV, researchers Chad Cowan and Derrick J. Rossi targeted a receptor—the CCR5—on blood-making cells that aid the progression of HIV.

“HIV uses the CCR5 receptor to enter T-cells,” Rossi said. He said that he and his colleagues felt comfortable isolating the receptor because “it is known that the stem cells can function well without CCR5.”

Cowan said that if the genome manipulation he and Rossi executed in the lab can be replicated, it may be able to mirror the treatment given to ex-HIV patient Brown.

“If successful, the gene therapy treatment we propose might accomplish the same thing as the transplant of cells into Timothy Ray Brown, only better because it would be the patient’s own cells that would be made resistant to HIV and then transplanted back to ‘cure’ them of AIDS,” he said.

Rossi said that a major benefit of modifying the patients’ own stem cells is the fact that they are guaranteed matches.

“You have to have very specific matches,” he said.

Cowan and Rossi, both professors in the Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology Department, piloted the effort. They said they were cautiously optimistic that, if it survives years of human and animal trials, the advance could one day help cure the deadly virus.

According to a press release from the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, the researchers think that their work could be ready for human trials in about five years and perhaps sooner.

The method has “a lot of hope,” Rossi said. He added, though, that HIV is extremely complex.

“You have to bear in mind of course, that there are other tropisms for HIV,” he said. “There is still more to be done.”

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