HIV patients treated with genetically modified T cells remain healthy up to 11 years after initial therapy, researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania report in the new issue of Science Translational Medicine. The results provide a framework for the use of this type of gene therapy as a powerful weapon in the treatment of HIV, cancer, and a wide variety of other diseases.
"We have 43 patients and they are all healthy," says senior author Carl June, MD, a professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Penn Medicine. "And out of those, 41 patients show long term persistence of the modified T cells in their bodies."
Early gene therapy studies raised concern that gene transfer to cells via retroviruses might lead to leukemia in a substantial proportion of patients, due to mutations that may arise in genes when new DNA is inserted. The new long-term data, however, allay that concern in T cells, further buoying the hope generated by work June's team published in 2011 showing the eradication of tumors in patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia using a similar strategy.
"If you have a safe way to modify cells in patients with HIV, you can potentially develop curative approaches," June says. "Patients now have to take medicine for their whole lives to keep their virus under control, but there are a number of gene therapy approaches that might be curative." A lifetime of anti-HIV drug therapy, by contrast, is expensive and can be accompanied by significant side effects.
They also note that the approach the Penn Medicine team studied may allow patients with cancers and other diseases to avoid the complications and mortality risks associated with more conventional treatments, since patients treated with the modified T cells did not require drugs to weaken their own immune systems in order for the modified cells to proliferate in their bodies after infusion, as is customary for cancer patients who receive stem cell transplants.