Using stem cells to fight AIDS



Posted on July 13, 2010 at 5:40 PM

Updated Friday, Jan 4 at 10:44 AM

The White House Tuesday unveiled the first formal national HIV/AIDS strategy. The plan focuses on education to reduce the number of new cases by 25 percent and get patients treated quickly.

Despite 30 years of research, there is still no cure.  But now scientists are looking inside a patient's own body for the solution.

Can your own stem cells kill HIV? Tom Gillman watched his partner die from AIDS. Now, he's has it. He takes 24 pills a day.

"A lot of this is a competition between me and it," said Tom.

Drug cocktails give patients more time, but the virus always wins.

"The HIV patient's immune system is severely compromised. They may, indeed, be lacking functional T-cells to stop the virus," said Dr. Jerome Zack, microbiologist in AIDS research at UCLA in Los Angeles.

Researchers at UCLA are the first to use human blood stem cells to kill HIV.

"The thought would be if you could replenish their immune systems with new functional t-cells, you might be able to combat the virus," said Zack.

The idea is to take blood stem cells from the HIV patient -- add a new gene -- and put them back into the patient. The thymus then turns them into t-cells, which naturally fight infection. They mature, target and destroy the infected HIV cells. In animals, the treatment hit the bulls-eye.

"They were able to kill HIV target cells," said Zack.

But some fear it's too early to call stem cells a cure.

"If you have a life-threatening disease, and there's nothing left on the table, I'd grab at anything, too. But you have to be careful that it might not actually make you better. It might make you worse," said Dr. Derek Van Der Kooy, professor of molecular genetics at the International Society of Stem Cell Research.

Tom is prepared for the worst, but he says he'll spend the rest of his life hoping science uncovers the answer that stops AIDS.

Doctors hope if the vaccine proves successful for HIV. It could also be used to fight many other viral diseases.