Monkey genes 'edited' by scientists to create HIV-resistant super-macaques

With the coronavirus pandemic raging around the world, it’s easy to forget about the other incurable virus that is shortening the lives of people worldwide.

But HIV is still bad for us. Without treatment, victims will live an average of about 10 years after infection. Only a few people have a natural immunity to the disease: a rare genetic mutation in a gene called CCR5 prevents HIV from entering cells.

Now doctors are editing macaque genes to develop a fully HIV-resistant monkey.

One of the teams working on the study is Igor Slukvin, MD, PhD, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

He told Future man : “The CCR5 mutation is almost non-existent in monkeys, so we have to create a genetically modified animal.”

“Lately there has been a lot of interest in editing human embryos for the treatment of genetic diseases,” he added. “But we don’t know much about the safety of embryo editing.”

Chinese scientist He Jiankui used the CRISPR gene editing tool to create genetically altered human embryos that had the modified CCR5 gene in hopes of creating a baby that was naturally immune to HIV.

Monkey genes 'edited' by scientists to create HIV-resistant super-macaques

But he was charged with violating Chinese medical ethics rules and found guilty of “illegal medical practices.” He, along with several members of his team, was fined and jailed.

But if Professor Slukvin’s monkeys are immune to SIV – the monkey equivalent of HIV – that could promise radical new treatments not just for HIV, but for other conditions as well.

Chinese scientists used CRISPR to add the CCR5 mutation to the cells of the blood of an adult donor.

They transfused the ‘processed’ blood to a subject who had both HIV and cancer. Although the transfusion did not cure the patient’s HIV, it did put his cancer into remission.

The best way to perfect the therapy, Sluvkin thinks, is to refine it in the lab with monkeys: “If we could investigate this approach in a monkey model, we could think of the best way to get a cure in human patients”, he says.