Scientists in the US have demonstrated for the first time that stem cells can be engineered to target and kill the HIV virus.

Expanding on previous research, a team of scientists from the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California showed that engineering stem cells to form immune cells that target HIV is effective in suppressing the virus in living tissues.

In 2009, the researchers identified a molecule known as the T-cell receptor, which guides "killer cells" (CD8 cytotoxic T lymphocytes) in targeting HIV-infected cells.

The receptor was cloned to genetically engineer human blood stem cells, which were then placed into human thymus tissue that had been implanted in mice.

In this current study, published in the journal PLoS Pathogens, the researchers found that engineered human blood stem cells can form mature T-cells that can specifically attack HIV in tissues in a humanised mouse, in which HIV infection closely resembles the disease in humans.

Lead investigator and assistant professor of medicine in the division of hematology and oncology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA Scott Kitchen said, "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."

In a series of tests on the mice’s peripheral blood, the study found that between two and six weeks after introducing the engineered cells, the number of white blood cells which become depleted as a result of HIV infection increased, while levels of HIV in the blood decreased.

The researchers will now begin making T-cell receptors that target different parts of HIV and that could be used in more genetically matched individuals.


Image: A molecule known as the T-cell receptor can guide stem cells to kill the HIV virus.