Editing genes to cure HIV? Chinese team awarded US$2m to pursue anti-AIDS technology

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 July, 2015, 7:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 July, 2015, 7:00am

A team of Chinese researchers is using controversial gene-editing technology to develop a potential cure for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

The scientists, led by Fu Xuemei at the Shenzhen Children's Hospital, were recently awarded 12.8 million yuan (US$2.06 million) by China's National Hi-Tech Research Development Programme (also known as the 863 Programme) for their work in adapting powerful gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 as a tool to fight against HIV/AIDS.

The use of CRISPR in humans has proved controversial in the past, such as when scientists at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou edited non-viable human embryos with the technology.

The technology allows scientists to add, disrupt or change the sequence of specific genes. According to the Daily Sunshine newspaper, Fu's project hopes to develop a method to genetically transfer the immunity seen in Timothy Ray Brown, the first person ever "cured" of HIV/AIDS, to other patients.

Brown, also known as the "Berlin patient", was diagnosed with HIV in 1995 and acute myeloid leukaemia in 2006. When radiation and chemotherapy were unsuccessful, he underwent two bone-marrow transplants.

Brown's oncologist deliberately selected a bone-marrow donor with a rare genetic mutation, Delta32. Found in 1 to 2 per cent of northern Europeans, people with the Delta32 mutation possess a CCR5 gene that is naturally resistant to many strands of HIV, preventing it from spreading within the body.

Following the procedure, doctors were unable to detect HIV in Brown's blood, nor antibodies that the body naturally creates to fight the virus, leading them to declare that he had been cured.

Fu's team hopes to recreate the effects seen in Brown by using CRISPR to artificially edit the CCR5 gene in HIV-infected patients, making it resistant to the virus.