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20 Nov, 2020 15:28

Major HIV vaccine breakthrough as scientists reengineer immune cells in step towards possible cure

Major HIV vaccine breakthrough as scientists reengineer immune cells in step towards possible cure

A new vaccine approach using genetically engineered immune cells from a patient's body has created a durable and long-lasting defense against HIV infection, generating new hope not just for a vaccine, but also a cure.

In experiments on mice, a team at Scripps Research induced broadly neutralizing antibodies, or bnAbs, capable of preventing HIV infection. 

They managed this by reprogramming genes within the immune system's B cells using the CRISPR technique to produce HIV antibodies of the kind found in rare HIV patients.

This new study shows that the reengineered B cells can not only multiply in response to vaccination but mature into both memory and plasma cells, combining to produce an effective and long-lasting defense against infection. 

“This is the first time it has been shown that modified B cells can create a durable engineered antibody response in a relevant animal model,” says principal investigator James Voss, Ph.D., of Scripps Research.

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Hopes are high among the researchers that one day this novel vaccine approach could not only prevent new HIV infections, but also cure existing HIV/AIDS cases, of which there were at least 38 million as of 2019. 

To begin the process in humans would only require a blood sample, but the approach requires customized genes based on a patient's own immune cells, which complicates matters and requires more time, resources, and expertise, which are difficult to scale.

The team is now working to improve and simplify the process, with a view to reducing cost while increasing accessibility once it gains the necessary regulatory approval in future. 

“People think of cell therapies as being very expensive,” Voss says. “We're doing a lot of work towards trying to make the technology affordable as a preventative HIV vaccine or functional cure that would replace daily antiviral therapy.”

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