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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, April 20, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 16
Stem cells can kill HIV,
UCLA researchers say
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Stem cells can kill HIV,
UCLA researchers say

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Human stem cells can be genetically engineered to kill HIV-infected cells in a living organism, a new UCLA study says.

The study, published in the journal PLoS Pathogens on April 12, follows up on previous research providing 'proof-of-principle' that stem cells can become anti-HIV immune cells.

'We believe that this study lays the groundwork for the potential use of this type of an approach in combating HIV infection in infected individuals, in hopes of eradicating the virus from the body,' said lead researcher Scott Kitchen, assistant professor of medicine in the division of hematology and oncology at David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and a member of the UCLA AIDS Institute.

'We believe that this is the first step in developing a more aggressive approach in correcting the defects in the human T cell responses that allow HIV to persist in infected people,' he added.

In the previous studies, scientists took CD8 cytotoxic T lymphocytes - the 'killer' T cells that help fight infection - from an HIV-infected individual and identified the molecule known as the T cell receptor, which guides the T cell in recognizing and killing HIV-infected cells.

Although T-cells are able to destroy HIV-infected cells, they do not exist in great enough quantities to clear the virus from the body, so the researchers cloned the receptor and used this to genetically engineer human blood stem cells. They then placed the engineered stem cells into human thymus tissue that had been implanted in mice, allowing them to study the reaction in a living organism.

The engineered stem cells developed into a large population of mature, multi-functional HIV-specific CD8 cells that specifically targeted cells containing HIV proteins.

The researchers also discovered that HIV-specific T cell receptors have to be matched to an individual in much the same way an organ is matched to a transplant patient.

In the latest study, UCLA researchers engineered human blood stem cells and found that they could create mature T cells that can attack HIV in tissues where the virus resides and replicates.

As in the previous studies, they used mice that had received implanted human thymus tissue.

They then tested the mice's peripheral blood, plasma, and organs two weeks and six weeks after introducing the engineered cells. Researchers found that the number of CD4 'helper' T cells - which become depleted as a result of HIV infection - increased, while levels of HIV in the blood decreased.

CD4 cells are white blood cells that are a component of the immune system, helping to fight off infections. These results indicated that the engineered cells were capable of developing and migrating to the organs to fight infection there.

Human immune cells reconstituted at a lower level in the subject mice than they would in humans, researchers noted, and as a result, the mice's immune systems were mostly, though not completely, reconstructed.

Because of this, researchers said, HIV may be slower to mutate in the mice than in human hosts. One way to compensate for this difference, they said, might be to use multiple engineered T cell receptors rather than one variety only.

The UCLA AIDS Institute was founded in 1992, as a multidisciplinary think tank including researchers in virology and immunology, genetics, cancer, neurology, ophthalmology, epidemiology, social sciences, public health, nursing and disease prevention.

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