In a world first, scientists in the US were able to completely remove HIV from a living animal using gene editing. The research is a major milestone, giving hope that a cure could be on the horizon.
Mice infected with HIV ended up virus-free after US researchers were able to remove it from their cells for the first time, according to a study published in the journal Nature Communications this week.
Researchers at Temple University in Pennsylvania and the University of Nebraska developed a two-step approach to eliminate the AIDS-causing virus from the genomes of the mice.
In the first part of the treatment, a special slow-release form of antiretroviral medication (known as LASER ART) was administered. The drugs halt the progress of HIV by targeting the virus' lifecycle, but they do not eliminate it.
In the second part, scientists used CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing to remove HIV DNA from infected cells.
Over a third of the mice examined in the study had no signs of HIV DNA in their cells following the combination treatment.
Human trials could start this year
Dr. Kamel Khalili, who led the research team at Temple University, said that the main takeaway from the study is that when the two methods are used together, they can be used "to produce a cure for HIV infection."
"We now have a clear path to move ahead to trials in non-human primates and possibly clinical trials in human patients within the year," Khalili said in a statement.
People who are infected with HIV have a high risk of developing AIDS, which leads to a progressive failure of the immune system.
There is currently no cure for HIV/AIDS, but recent research has shown that antiretroviral medication to suppress the virus can stop it from being sexually transmitted.
Over 35 million people have died around the world since the HIV/AIDS epidemic emerged in the 1980s.
While the number of AIDS deaths is falling, the number of new infections worldwide remains high at 1.8 million new cases each year, according to the World Health Organization.