Temple University School of Medicine this week released a groundbreaking HIV/AIDS study that researchers say could bring the world one step closer to a cure.

For the first time ever, researchers were able to completely eliminate latent HIV-1 virus from human cells in a laboratory setting.

The study, led by Dr. Kamel Khalili, professor and chair of Temple’s Department of Neuroscience, and associate professor of neuroscience Dr. Wenhui Hu, was published July 21 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The research team created molecular tools to erase the HIV-1 pro-viral DNA. The process includes nuclease, a DNA-snipping enzyme, and gRNA, a targeted strand of RNA, which find the viral genome and remove the HIV-1 DNA. The gene’s repair machinery then fuse together the loose ends of the genome, ultimately leading to virus-free cells.

Khalili said that, while the treatments for HIV/AIDS have evolved vastly over the past few decades, it is integral that attention is focused on finding a cure.

“People were dying in the earlier months and years of HIV/AIDS and then people started expanding their lives living with HIV and people became comfortable with that idea,” he said. “However, HIV can be a ticking time bomb if you don’t take the drugs daily. And, on top of that, there is the mentality; people start questioning whether they took their pills today or what will happen to them if they didn’t. We want an AIDS-free zone and we are advocating for that.”

Khalili, who has been working in the HIV/AIDS research field for more than 25 years, said the study started about four years ago.

The National Institutes for Health has awarded the project a $1.16-million grant for the next three years.

Khalili said his team hopes to eliminate every single copy of HIV-1 from the patient but said researchers have to develop a method to deliver the therapeutic agent to every single infected cell. The treatment may also be catered to each patient’s unique viral sequences. He hopes to work with small-animal models in Temple’s laboratory to further develop the study.

“I started getting responses from patients who have approached us and asked us about the study and when it will be in clinics,” Khalili said. “We are at the early stage and there are so many steps we have to do, but I think we should be able to get this into clinics not far from today. It is exciting.”

Robert Winn, medical director at Mazzoni Center, welcomed the news as an important step in the search for a cure.

“Any advances in the field of HIV that suggest new ways to prevent, treat or eliminate the virus are welcome and exciting,” Winn said. “To date, treatment has been mostly aimed at suppressing HIV. These results from Temple researchers give us hope that eliminating HIV, the virus that has been so devastating to our communities, might be a future possibility.”

Winn noted that “it is a long way from one cell to an entire human, but we are closer now than ever. Until then, prevention and treatment are keeping people healthy and making their lives near normal.”

The study was also supported by researchers from Fox Chase Cancer Center, Case Western Reserve University and West China Medical School at Sichuan University.

From our media partner PGN-The Philadelphia Gay News.