In June of last year we wrote about how Dr. Scott Kitchen and his team at UCLA are engineering blood forming stem cells in order to fight HIV, a potentially deadly virus that attacks the immune system and can worsen into AIDS if left untreated. HIV causes havoc in the body by attacking T cells, a vital part of the body’s immune system that helps fight off infections and diseases.
Dr. Kitchen’s approach uses what is called Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T gene therapy. This is a type of immune therapy that involves genetically modifying the body’s own blood forming stem cells to create T cells that have the ability to fight HIV. These newly formed immune cells have the potential to not only destroy HIV-infected cells but to create “memory cells” that could provide lifelong protection from HIV infection.
Unfortunately, although the previously designed CAR T gene therapy was still able to create HIV fighting immune cells, the way the CAR T gene therapy was designed still had the potential to allow for HIV infection.
For this new study, the team modified the CAR T gene therapy such that the cells would be resistant to infection and allow for a more efficient and longer-lasting cell response against HIV than before.
While the previous approach allowed for the continuous production of new HIV-fighting T cells that persisted for more than two years, these cells are inactivated until they come across the HIV virus. The improved CAR T gene therapy engineers the body’s immune response to HIV rather than waiting for the virus to induce a response. This is similar in concept to how a vaccine prepares the immune system to respond against a virus. The new approach also creates a significant number of “memory” T cells that are capable of quickly responding to reactivated HIV.
The hope is that these findings can influence the development of T cells that are able carry “immune system” memory with the ability to recognize and kill virus-infected or cancerous cells.
To date, CIRM has also funded four separate clinical trials related to the treatment of HIV/AIDS totaling over $31 million.