From clinic to mouse to clinic: New HIV gene therapy shows promise!

Yesterday a team of University of Pennsylvania researchers – led by Dr Pablo Tebas, Professor Carl June, and Dr Bruce Levine – announced the successful conclusion of a clinical trial to evaluate the safety of a new gene therapy technique for treating HIV. It is a result that may eventually allow millions of HIV positive people to control the infection without having to take daily medication.

Two technicians in Penn Medicine's Clinical Cell and Vaccine Production Facility hold up a bag of modified T cells. Image: Penn Medicine

Two technicians in Penn Medicine’s Clinical Cell and Vaccine Production Facility hold up a bag of modified T cells. Image: Penn Medicine

Their study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, involved taking a sample of T-cells from 12 patients and then using an adenoviral vector to introduce into these cells an enzyme known as a zinc-finger nuclease (ZFN) that has been targeted to the CCR5 receptor gene so that it introduces a mutation called CCR5-delta-32.  They then expanded the number of T-cells in vitro until they had billions of the transformed T-cells ready for transplant back into the patients.

Most HIV strains need to bind to CCR5 to infect T-cells, and the CCR5-delta-32 mutation prevents this binding and subsequent infection, as was dramatically demonstrated in the case of the “Berlin patient”, so the Pennsylvania team are hoping that their method will enable long-term control of HIV infection in patients, so that they may no longer need to take anti-retroviral medication.

An important part of the development of this therapy was its evaluation in vivo in an animal model of HIV infection. To do this they turned to mice rather than the more usual SIV/macaque model, as the sequence of the CCR5 gene at the site targeted by ZFN in macaques is not conserved with humans and would require the design and assembly of a distinct ZFN binding set for testing in SIV infection. Mice don’t normally become infected with HIV, but by using NOG mice that have been genetically modified so that their own immune system do not develop and then transplanting human immune cells into the mice they were able to produce mice with “humanized” immune systems that could be used to evaluate the ability of their ZFN modified T-cells to block HIV infection. In a paper published in the journal Nature Biotechnology in 2008, the team led by Carl June reported that the transformed human T-cells could successfully engraft and proliferate when transplanted into the NOG mice, and protect against subsequent HIV infection.

To our knowledge, genome editing that is sufficiently robust to support therapy in an animal model has not been shown previously. The ZFN-guided genomic editing was highly specific and well tolerated, as revealed by examination of the stability, growth and engraftment characteristics of the genome-modified sub-population even in the absence of selection…We also observed a threefold enrichment of the ZFN-modified primary human CD4+ T cells and protection from viremia in a NOG mouse model of active HIV-1 infection. As predicted for a genetically determined trait, the ZFN-modified cells demonstrated stable and heritable resistance in progeny cells to HIV-1 infection both in vitro and in vivo. These results demonstrate that ZFN-mediated genome editing can be used to reproduce a CCR5 null genotype in primary human cells.”

Following this they also undertook more extensive regulatory studies in mice to demonstrate that there were no toxicities associated with the ZFIN transformation of the T-cells.

While the clinical trial announced yesterday focused on the safety of the technique, the authors also reported that HIV RNA became undetectable in one of four patients who could be evaluated, and that the blood level of HIV DNA decreased in most patients, which bodes well for future trials when larger quantities of ZFN-modified cells will be transplanted.

This is not the first time that the pioneering work of Bruce Levine and Carl June has caught our attention, they are the same researchers who have hit the headlines with an innovative “Chimeric Antibody Receptor” gene therapy for leukemia that is part of the cancer immunotherapy revolution now underway. Their latest breakthrough is another indication of how gene therapy is becoming an important part of 21st century medicine.

Paul Browne

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One response to “From clinic to mouse to clinic: New HIV gene therapy shows promise!

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