Salk scientists use new CRISPR tech to chop up HIV

The Salk Institute team using CRISPR to chop up HIV--Courtesy of Salk Institute

The new CRISPR gene editing technology that has driven the rapid development of a slate of upstart biotechs is being employed in new research projects as well. And scientists at the Salk Institute say they have achieved some remarkable results in using CRISPR to chop up active and dormant HIV, potentially opening the door to a new approach that could ultimately free patients from the meds needed to keep the virus at bay while also preventing the spread of infection in the first place.

As the Salk team explains, CRISPR uses guide RNA to make surgical cuts, part of the "molecular defense system" your body has developed to slice up foreign DNA. Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, a professor of Salk's Gene Expression Laboratory and senior author of the new work, along with Hsin-Kai "Ken" Liao, say that they developed guide RNA that would specifically scissor up HIV's genes at specific spots.

In this project, the scientists say that the approach effectively removed the virus from 72% of cells. And CRISPR was able to attack both loose copies of HIV as well as dormant copies that lie hidden inside cells, constantly threatening the host with a fresh attack. And the technology holds the promise of protecting cells from being invaded in the first place.

"The main advantage of this technology is not only that viral DNA integrated into the human genome can be eliminated but perhaps, most importantly, the prophylactic application," says Izpisua Belmonte. "By eliminating the virus at the early steps of its life cycle, we can altogether prevent the infection of human cells in an analogous manner to how conventional vaccines work."

One of the reasons that HIV has never been conquered is that it has the ability to mutate rapidly. Now the scientists say that they are pursuing this avenue of research to see if they can use the CRISPR technology to adapt the attack on HIV to make it harder if not impossible for the virus to escape destruction.

"If we target multiple regions at the same time, we reduce the chance that the virus can develop resistance," says Liao.

- here's the release
- read the research abstract