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After years of despondency about finding a vaccine, or even a cure, for HIV/AIDS, several research groups have reported promising advances.
Paula Cannon, a researcher from the University of Southern California described a new way to control HIV infection using modified stem cells in Nature Biotechnology this month (2 July).
Her team used the CCR5 gene from human stem cells, which normally allows the HIV virus to enter human cells. People with a mutation in this gene are naturally resistant to infection from the most common type of HIV.
They infected two groups of laboratory mice with the virus: one group with these CCR5-modified cells and the other group without them.
After 12 weeks mice with the stem cell treatment were able to suppress the HIV infection.
"We have now shown that you can make HIV-resistant human blood stem cells — and that these then grow and divide and make HIV-resistant ‘daughter cells’ in all of the different types of human immune cells — including the T cells that HIV kills," Cannon told SciDev.Net.
"The excitement around a stem cell-based therapy is that it could potentially be a ‘one-shot’ treatment, as stem cells should last in a patient for a lifetime, continuously making such HIV resistant cells … so the patient can be fighting HIV using their own cells," she said.
Meanwhile Science has published two reports that have indentified three new antibodies that are active against a wide range of HIV strains, two of which can neutralise over 90 per cent of HIV strains.
The findings provide important insights for HIV vaccine design, according to one of the report’s authors, Gary J. Nabel, director of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health in the United States.
"For HIV vaccine design we use these antibodies to identify the parts of the protein to retain in a vaccine and to eliminate parts that are dispensable, allowing the immune system to focus on the relevant structure," he told SciDev.Net.
"The progress made in molecular biology is important," said Luis Ángel Moreno Díaz, director of UNAIDS Colombia, but he added that "there are still missing steps before these new technologies can be tested in human trials".
HIV/AIDS has claimed more than 25 million lives since 1981, with more than 2.7 million new infections reported each year, according to a report by the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise, ‘The Road to Prevention’, due to be launched at the AIDS vaccine conference in Atlanta, United States, this September.