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Deadly HIV holds potential to heal

April 12, 1996
Web posted at: 12:45 a.m. EDT

From Correspondent Andrew Holtz

Cell HIV

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- In an ironic twist, geneticists say they may be able to transform the deadly virus that causes AIDS into a tool for treating many diseases by using a type of gene therapy.

Although researchers have found many genes linked to diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, they've had a hard time replacing the broken genes. So, some researchers have turned to HIV to help them out.


Scientists believe that the deadly capabilities of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, can be harnessed to wipe out diseased cells.

Their strategy sets as a target the broken gene in the DNA, within the center of a cell. The "magic arrow" is a corrected version of that gene spliced into altered HIV, which then follows its natural tendency to infect the cell. In the process, it drops off the corrected gene.

In the journal Science, Salk Institute researchers report success in using HIV to carry genes into the brain cells of laboratory rats.


"This discovery brings gene therapy a step closer to becoming what I would call a normal, modern molecular medicine practice," said Inder Verma of the Salk Institute.

The work points toward better types of microscopic delivery trucks -- known as "gene vectors" in the scientific community.


"This is a major breakthrough, in reality, to be able to harness a whole new type of viral vector," said Dr. Terry Flotte of Johns Hopkins Children's Center.

There's much more work to be done. Right now, it is too risky to inject people with even altered forms of HIV. Researchers expect to replace HIV with similar viruses that cause disease in animals, but not in people, as the building blocks of a new gene therapy tool.

But eventually, Verma said, the applications will be enormous. "Gene therapy is a form of medicine which will clearly have a major effect on nearly every aspect of human health, genetic diseases, cancer, infectious diseases, neurological diseases," he said.

Scientists acknowledge the irony of using a killer virus to fight disease. Even more ironic is their plan to use this new process in treatments for people with hemophilia, whose ranks were decimated in the early days of the AIDS epidemic by HIV lurking in the blood products they need to help their blood clot.

Researchers also point out that AIDS research laid the groundwork for this gene therapy advance. "And now that information, that science, may in fact benefit people with a whole range of other diseases," Flotte says.

This promising gene therapy may now be a little closer, all thanks to a spinoff from the fight against AIDS.

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