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ADVANCE Discourse: Lab

Contributions to HIV Research

Published September 25, 2013 2:27 PM by Michael Jones

During the peak of the AIDS epidemic, Stephen Crohn saw many friends and partners eventually succumb to the disease and noticed something strange. He had never been diagnosed as HIV positive. A recent story from NPR chronicled the life of Crohn and his impact on AIDS research.

Crohn sensed something different about his body, and after allowing himself to be studied, researchers agreed. Certain groups of his immune cells, called CD4 cells, were genetically resistant to the virus. The rare genetic mutation that allowed for this immunity is called the delta 32 mutation and, according to the NPR piece, has been essential in the development of treatments for HIV.

“Through all the misery, actually at the end, from studying him and people like him, we actually did move HIV research forward,” said Bill Paxton, Phd, an immunologist at the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center who worked with Crohn, in the NPR Q&A. “And there are drugs out there now which, from Steve’s findings, are highly beneficial to stop the virus from replicating.”

According to the NPR piece, Crohn recently passed away, having committed suicide last month, but his contribution to the AIDS battle has furthered the cause significantly. Another article from aidsmap detailed the benefits of using the delta 32 mutation as a model for potential treatments, discussing a recent study on the “zinc finger technique,” which “uses a zinc finger nuclease to cut out the gene in CD4 cells that controls expression of the CCR5 co-receptor on the surface of cells.”

According to the aidsmap article, seven total patients were administered with modified CD4 cells (SB-728-T) after incorporating the zinc finger technique. Of the seven study participants, one stopped being evaluated after a 12 week interruption, three responded to the modified cells and the remaining three were classified as non-responders -- two having resumed antiretroviral therapy (ART), while the third experienced no changes. The article went on to note that the three responding participants underwent 20-week periods of treatment interruption -- two of which experienced a jump in their numbers, but the third “remains off treatment.”

“This is the first study to demonstrate that functional control of HIV by the immune system may be possible by providing a population of CD4 T-cells made HIV resilient by biallelic modification of CCR5 (SB-728-T),” the researchers stated in the aidsmap story. “The data demonstrate that the level of engrafted CCR5-modified, HIV-protected CD4 T-cells and the magnitude of the HIV reservoir are important factors in the functional control of HIV viremia during treatment interruption.”

 The impacts of genetic therapies are changing the way physicians and researchers are treating and studying their patients. Diseases like the AIDS or cancers are enormous obstacles to overcome in medicine and contributions like Stephen Crohn’s to the understanding of these illnesses at the genetic level are unprecedented. 

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