HIV successfully overcomes CRISPR gene-editing technology

pharmafile | April 8, 2016 | News story | Research and Development HIV, crispr, failure, setback 

Researchers using the CRISPR gene-editing technology have indicated that HIV can defeat efforts to cripple it, but have characterised it as a “minor setback” in their efforts to use this novel technology to fight the infection.

It may have become a manageable disease in the past few decades, but a cure remains elusive. That’s why a research team led by virologist Chen Liang at McGill University in Montreal, infected T cells with the necessary DNA-shearing enzyme that can effectively incapacitate HIV.

In theory, these efforts should have been successful but two weeks after the initial gene editors were introduced, the group observed that the T cells were pumping out copies of virus particles that had escaped the CRISPR attack. DNA sequencing then revealed that the virus had developed mutations very near the sequence that CRISPR’s Cas9 enzyme had been programmed to cut.

It may not be surprising given HIV’s well-known ability to evolve resistance to all manner of antiviral drugs. Liang contends however, that HIV’s victory over CRISPR was not due to familiar methods. The team pinpointed that when the virus replicates in other cells it does so at a different sequence meaning that CRISPR’s targeted T cell attack will be ineffective.

This discovery in itself, however, is interesting, according to Liang. He says: “We were a bit excited when we found this.” It is hoped that using this gene editing method could be more effective tackling HIV when inactivating several essential HIV genes at once, or by using CRISPR in combination with HIV-attacking drugs.

Gene editing and CRISPR, especially, have become hot topics recently. AstraZeneca recently announced that they planned to use the technology to identify new drug targets, while the UK’s expertise in genomics was highlighted at a recent international meeting.

Sean Murray

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