Scientists fear side effects after HIV cut from cells with “gene scissors”

  • Dutch scientists say they have managed to eliminate HIV from cells using gene editing.
  • The technology has the potential to cure people of HIV, but there are concerns about possible side effects.
  • South Africa has one of the largest populations of people living with HIV in the world, but the number is steadily declining.

A team of scientists has used genetic scissors to “cut” the DNA of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) out of cells, completely killing it. At the moment, the most modern and potent medicines against HIV can only stop the virus from mutating and spreading, but not eliminate it.

The scientists from the University of Amsterdam presented an abstract or “proof of concept” at a top European medical conference earlier in the week, showing that they could eliminate HIV from cells using this DNA scissor method.

According to the BBC, the scientists say that the work is still early and is not the cure for HIV just yet, but with more research the team hopes the technology can one day be used to completely eliminate HIV from the entire body, curing the patient and preventing acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).

The method the scientists used is called “Crispr,” a type of gene-editing technology that won its original creators a Nobel prize. The BBC says that other scientists are attempting to use Crispr against HIV, but only the Amsterdam team has presented a breakthrough of this magnitude as of yet.

Crispr works at a molecular level to cut or inactivate “bad” DNA out of a cell. In this case, the bad DNA belongs to the virus.

Other scientists are saying that the process is “extremely challenging” and not practical for a real cure. There are also possible unforeseen side-effects of genetic editing within living beings.

“Off-target effects of the treatment, with possible long-term side effects, remain a concern,” Dr Jonathan Stoye, virus expert at the Francis Crick Institute London told the BBC.

“It therefore seems likely that many years will elapse before any such Crispr-based therapy becomes routine – even assuming that it can be shown to be effective.”

The virus spreads from person to person through infected blood and other bodily fluids. The virus mutates, spreads and kills the body’s immune system. Without an immune system, infected patients perish from other illnesses.

However, modern medical advances have developed drugs to completely control the spread so that infected people can otherwise live full, normal lives.

In South Africa, it is estimated that 12.7 percent of the total population lives with HIV. This is around 7.8 million people in 2023, a number that is steadily decreasing thanks in part to widespread educational campaigns, warnings and interventions like making people aware of their HIV status.

The country is still in the top five worldwide for the total number of cases.

As of right now, a complete “cure” for HIV seems far away, and instead the medical community is hoping to stop the virus without a cure or vaccine simply by preventative methods and medicines.

“While there’s no cure for HIV yet, it’s vital everyone knows we have incredibly effective HIV treatment. That treatment means people living with HIV can expect to live long and healthy lives. If they take their medication as prescribed, they cannot pass the virus onto their sexual partners,” said Richard Angell from the Terrence Higgins Trust, a UK-based charity that campaigns for more HIV-related services and sexual health awareness.

“We have all of the tools necessary to end new HIV cases in the UK by 2030 – and mark the first time a virus was stopped without a vaccine nor cure.”

With drugs like PrEP and free antiretrovirals disbursed by public institutions, South Africa also has the potential to stop the spread, and signs show that the wave is flattening. But an HIV-free society is still many years away.

[Image – Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash]


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