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HIV infects a human cell. (National Institute of Health Photo)

Some viruses, no matter how hard we try, remain resistant to vaccines. Now, researchers are using a different method, gene editing, as a way to make cells immune to mankind’s most difficult viruses.

Led by Dr. Justin Taylor, a team at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center has targeted four infections for which there’s no protective vaccine: HIV, influenza, the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

Dr. Justin Taylor. (Fred Hutch Photo / Robert Hood)

The researchers used CRISPR/Cas9 technology to modify B cells, a class of white blood cells that produce antibodies to protect us from diseases. By coding the cells with genes that create specific antibodies, the team was able to make them immune without the use of a vaccine.

The researchers tested the method in both human cells in a test tube and in living mice. On average, about 30 percent of the cells produced the desired antibody. Taylor said that the mice remained protected for 83 days following the procedure, an important benchmark given that patients who receive stem cell transplants can have weakened immune systems for three to six months.

To be clear, Taylor doesn’t have anything against traditional vaccination. “Vaccines are great,” he said. “I wish we had more of them.”

Instead, Taylor thinks the gene editing method could work one day for diseases where we don’t have a vaccine. It may help patients who are immunocompromised, meaning their bodies can no longer fight infections, as well as older patients whose bodies aren’t as receptive to vaccines. Gene-edited immunity might also be used to protect people faster than can be done with traditional vaccines, which could be useful during unexpected outbreaks.

Taylor’s team included Fred Hutch researchers and co-authors Howell Moffett, Carson Harms, Kristin Fitzpatrick, Marti Tooley and Jim Boonyaratanakornkit. The results will be published in the journal Science Immunology.

Many researchers have marveled at how easy CRISPR is to use, and Taylor himself had “zero experience with any kind of genetic engineering” at the start of the project. Other researchers at Fred Hutch are attempting to use the technology to directly remove diseases like HIV and viral hepatitis from the genome.

Taylor initially received funding for the research from The Hartwell Foundation, which supports biomedical projects that benefit U.S. children. The research also received financing from Vir Biotechnology, a San Francisco-based firm that develops treatments for infectious diseases.

Going forward, Taylor hopes to improve the method by making the effects longer lasting, proving its safety by examining any unintended effects, and scaling it for eventual use in humans.

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