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by Mike Zazaian November 7, 2006 - 12:36pm, 7 Comments

A microscope image of the HIV virus

Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania have developed a genetically-engineered strain of the AIDS virus that combats other, more deadly strains.

The new anti-AIDS strain, which was developed through a genetic manipulation technique called antisense, was examined in a three-year study that ended this week. Researchers involved in the study recruited five AIDS sufferers whom had begun to fail treatment, meaning that drugs no longer contained the virus. Three years after injecting these patients with the antisense strain, four of the patients have shown restoration of their damaged immune systems, with partial suppression of the harmful HIV virus.

It seemed to have a vaccine-like effect in that the immune system was better in most of the patients than when they enrolled, Said Dr. Carl June, a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, where the study was conducted. We are trying to study the mechanism.

To develop the antisense strain the team of researchers first guts a cell of the HIV virus until only half of the original pathogenic virus remains. Scientists then reverse the remaining envelope gene of the remaining HIV cells, a manipulation technique called antisense. The team then removed CD4 T-cells from the immune systems of the five patients, injected the T-cells with the antisense-manipulated HIV strain, and replaced the modified cells in the patients’ immune systems.

We put back more (CD4 cells) than we took out, added June. We don’t know if that is why their immune system gets better, because there are more soldiers, or whether it got better because of better antiviral effects.

Gene therapy techniques have been questioned in the past because of inconsistent results. While some gene therapy patients have been cured of AIDS, others have developed leukemia. As such, one of the primary objectives of the study was to demonstrate that the antisense strain was not harmful to patients. Said June:

The goal of this phase I trial was safety and feasibility and the results established that.

The new therapy is now undergoing Phase II trials with patients in whom drugs have helped to control HIV. AIDS infects nearly 40 million people world wide, and 25 million have died as a result. While there is currently no cure for the disease, studies such as June’s bring us ever close to a problem that has plagued the world for decades.

Via Reuters