SAN FRANCISCO -- Nearly 10 years after the development of anti-viral drugs to treat HIV and AIDS, scientists are poised to use a new weapon: stem cells.
Researchers at UCLA are working on ways to arm blood stem cells in the bone marrow against HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Though the strategy is not a cure, it may be more effective than current anti-viral treatments and may have the potential to immunize people against the virus.
HIV attacks several types of blood cells that are part of the immune system. "If you can target the blood-forming stem cell, that cell gives rise to all blood cells," said virologist Jerome Zack of UCLA. "So, therefore, if you could protect that cell, then every other cell derived from that would be protected."
Zack presented his research at a meeting of the Independent Citizens'' Oversight Committee, the 27-member group that directs California''s stem-cell-research program.
"Every day, the situation gets worse," said Jeff Sheehy of the University of California San Francisco AIDS Research Institute and ICOC board member. "Every day, 8,500 people in this world die of AIDS. Every day, 14,000 new infections occur across the globe."
Current anti-viral therapies can suppress HIV and extend many patients'' lives. But treatments involve a lifetime of daily medications with toxic side effects. Over time, resistance to the drugs can occur.
Along with UCLA''s Ronald Mitsuyasu, a researcher and doctor who treats patients with HIV and AIDS, Zack is devising a way to insert a gene into bone-marrow stem cells that can either prevent HIV from infecting the cells or deactivate virus already in the cells.
The idea is to replace the gene that is vulnerable to attack by HIV with a synthetically engineered piece of DNA designed to seek out and destroy the virus.
Mitsuyasu recently finished an initial clinical trial to test the safety of the treatment. The 10 patients in the trial didn''t exhibit any problems, and after three years, the HIV-resistant blood cells could still be detected.