Gene therapy for HIV safe, but effectiveness still unclear

By Randy Dotinga HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, May 2 (HealthDay News) — New research shows that gene therapy can have long-lasting effects on the immune cells of HIV patients — a promising sign — even though the specific treatment being studied did not eradicate the virus.

This approach is one of several gene therapy strategies that are being investigated by scientists as possible ways to keep the AIDS virus from spreading in the blood.

In this case, “people were treated by gene therapy and nothing bad happened. It was safe,” said study co-author Frederic Bushman, a professor of microbiology at the University of Pennsylvania.

In addition, he said, the treated immune cells managed to remain around for about a decade. “The general picture that emerges about genetic alterations to human immune cells is that they can persist for a long time if you do it right.”

The study appears in the May 2 issue of Science Translational Medicine.

Researchers have long been exploring gene therapy — in which cells in the body are genetically modified — as a possible treatment for infection with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The idea is that the therapy would offer a permanent alternative to costly medications that come with potentially disabling side effects.

“Just think about what an HIV patient has to do: take drugs every day for the rest of his life, and the minute he stops taking them, the virus starts coming back,” said John Rossi, chair of the department of molecular and cellular biology at the Beckman Research Institute of the City of Hope, in Duarte, Calif. He was not associated with the new research.

The study looks at 43 HIV-positive patients. Between 1998 and 2002, researchers removed blood from the patients, genetically modified it, and injected it back into them.

The plan was to program immune cells known as T cells to kill HIV cells.

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Gene therapy for HIV safe, but effectiveness still unclear

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