Can stem cells cure AIDS? Not yet. But a provocative new study shows that human stem cells can be genetically engineered to attack living cells infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
"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," study author Dr. Scott G. Kitchen, assistant professor of medicine at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine, said in a written statement released by the university.
For the "proof-of-principle" study, Dr. Kitchen's team implanted genetically engineered human blood stem cells into "humanized" mice, rodents in which HIV infection and the resulting disease resemble what happens in HIV-infected humans.
When the researchers checked the mice's blood, plasma, and organs weeks later, they found an increase in levels of so-called CD4 "helper" T cells--infection-fighting cells that become depleted as a result of HIV infection. At the same time, levels of HIV fell.
The finding, published in the journal PLoS Pathogens, comes more than a year after The Huffington Post reported that an HIV-positive man known as the "Berlin patient" was apparently cured of his infection by a stem cell transplant.
Just how significant is the new finding?
In an email to The Huffington Post, renowned AIDS researcher Dr. Nathaniel R. Landau, professor of microbiology at New York University Langone Medical Center, called it "a remarkable demonstration of the power we are developing to alter how our bodies work. That is, that you can in the laboratory do something that will educate the cells of the immune system to recognize a specific pathogen."
Many obstacles must be overcome before the research might lead to a real-world cure for AIDS, Dr. Landau said, adding that "This is not something that will be ready for patients this year or next (maybe 4-5 years?)."
For now, the UCLA researchers plan to begin making genetically engineered T cells that target different parts of HIV, according to the statement.
As of 2010, World Health Organization statistics show that 34 million people around the world were living with HIV infection. AIDS claimed 1.8 million lives in 2010.