Researchers from Temple University have used the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing tool to clear out the entire HIV-1 genome from a patient’s infected immune cells. It’s a remarkable achievement that could have profound implications for the treatment of AIDS and other retroviruses.
It’s a little early to break out the champagne, but while medication for HIV has done wonders – HIV is notoriously good at hiding in the body. That’s where news like this brings hope that HIV positive people could one day be truly cured.
They were worried about what people called “recombinant DNA,” the manipulation of the source code of life. It had been just 22 years since James Watson, Francis Crick, and Rosalind Franklin described what DNA was—deoxyribonucleic acid, four different structures called bases stuck to a backbone of sugar and phosphate, in sequences thousands of bases long. DNA is what genes are made of, and genes are the basis of heredity.
Preeminent genetic researchers like David Baltimore, then at MIT, went to Asilomar to grapple with the implications of being able to decrypt and reorder genes. It was a God-like power—to plug genes from one living thing into another. Used wisely, it had the potential to save millions of lives. But the scientists also knew their creations might slip out of their control. They wanted to consider what ought to be off-limits.
Editing the sequence of bases in a DNA molecule is pretty straightforward in a test tube. Until recently, editing the DNA of a living organism had been a very large challenge, one that was more often avoided than taken up. But a system bacteria use to defeat viruses has been repurposed to make a versatile DNA editing system.
Last week brought the horrifying news that the Ebola virus can live in the eyeballs of survivors, even after it’s been eliminated from the rest of the body. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, though. Viruses have always hidden in parts of our bodies you’d never expect. In fact, we’re all walking virus reservoirs.