Bioethics Blogs

Can Genome Editing Cure AIDS?

Hinco Gierman

Yes. At least, in theory. But, theory might soon become practice according to this week’s issue of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine [1]. It published the first clinical trial of genome editing, in which the DNA of 12 human volunteers was “edited” to make them “genetically resistant” to the HIV virus.

What do I mean by genome editing and is it safe? How is this different from other gene therapies? Why would this cure AIDS? Is it unethical to genetically modify humans? And of course most importantly, should we be worried about “genetically modified super-humans” taking over the planet?

WHAT IS GENOME EDITING?

Genome editing means precisely changing a sequence of DNA in an exact location. In this study, the location was a gene called CCR5, which produces a protein that normally sticks to the outside of some of our immune cells (T cells). The HIV virus needs this protein to infect the T cells that it uses to multiply. The editing was deleting a piece of the CCR5 gene, which makes it inactive and leaves the HIV virus without a way to enter our cells. This deletion, called delta-32, naturally occurs in Northern Europeans [2,3]. Six years ago in Berlin, an HIV patient with leukemia received cells from a bone marrow donor that had the delta-32 mutation in both of the CCR5 gene copies (we inherit every gene from both our parents, so have two copies of each gene). The Berlin patient was cured from his leukemia, but also from his HIV infection, and to this day remains clear of HIV virus [4].

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.