Advances in genetics hold promise for HIV immunity

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Rare mutations in the CCR5 receptor and variations the APOBEC3 gene family hold promise for new, potentially disease-eradicating therapies for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), according to researchers.

Greo Hütter, MD, at the Charlie Hospital in Berlin believes that science a lot closer to a cure than it was 30 years ago.

HIV infects and attacks by binding itself to the body’s white blood cells, typically via the CCR5 receptor. Seven years ago, Hütter and his team made a breakthrough in HIV treatment when they eradicated all  traces of the virus from a 40-year-old patient with both HIV and leukemia, Timothy Ray Brown, also known as the “Berlin Patient.”

Brown underwent chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant from a donor with a CCR5 mutation, which is believed to convey natural immunity to the virus in about 1% of the population.

In separate studies involving serodiscordant couples, in which one partner has HIV and the other does not, findings suggest that people with specific variations of the gene APOBEC3H produce stronger and more stable antiretroviral enzymes, which may inhibit the replication of HIV and make the risk for transmission much lower.

Scientists are now looking for other forms of natural immunity to use in developing an HIV vaccine and gene therapy. At the University of Minnesota, Reuben Harris, PhD, believes there are many different forms of natural immunities out in the world that have not yet been discovered.

“The CCR5 mutation may be one and APOBEC3H may be another. And these are just a few of many different mechanisms out there that we need to figure out,” Harris said. “I guess it’s a perfect example of why we don’t want homogeneity in the human race. If we were all the same then it would be too easy for a super-virus to sweep through and wipe us all out.”

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Scientists are now looking for other forms of natural immunity to use in developing an HIV vaccine and gene therapy.
"I believe it's possible to develop a mass-market single-shot treatment for HIV," says Dr Gero Hütter. "If we can overcome a few problems, our approach is closer to a complete cure than anything in the last 30 years."
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