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, 19 (3), 167-172

Hot News: Gene Therapy With CRISPR/Cas9 Coming to Age for HIV Cure

  • PMID: 29019352

Hot News: Gene Therapy With CRISPR/Cas9 Coming to Age for HIV Cure

Vicente Soriano. AIDS Rev.


The huge success of current antiretroviral therapy is mediated by a triple effect: (i) Halting progression to AIDS in infected persons; (ii) reducing the risk of transmission to contacts (treatment as prevention); and (iii) minimizing the risk of HIV acquisition treating uninfected persons at risk (pre-exposure prophylaxis). However, UNAIDS has estimated that only 70% of infected people globally are diagnosed, only 53% are treated, and overall 44% have undetectable viral load, which is the necessary request for ensuring any antiretroviral benefit. Thus, with 37 million people currently living with HIV worldwide and more than 2 million new infections per year, the prospects for global HIV eradication are far on the horizon. Over the past couple of years, rapid development has been seen for technologies enabling modification of gene expression, either by direct inhibition by RNA interference (RNAi) or by genomic modification at DNA level. In particular, genome-editing endonucleases have significantly improved our ability to make precise changes in the DNA of eukaryotic cells. Notably, firstgeneration genome-editing technologies (i.e., ZFNs and TALENs) have been replaced by clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR/Cas9), which work with a short guide RNA (gRNA) to hybridize to a target DNA site and recruit the Cas9 endonuclease. Once integrated into the host genome, HIV gene expression is regulated by the LTR promoter. Hypothetically, gene editing of the HIV promoter might have the potential to deactivate viral transcription by the introduction of mutations or fragment excision. HIV gene therapy progressed very slowly until recent breakthroughs in gene-editing methods using CRISPR/Cas9 (Liao et al. Nat Commun 2015;6:6413). Using a shorter version of the Cas9 endonuclease ensembled into an adenoviral vector, critical segments of thAQ!e viral DNA genome spanning between the LTR and gag regions were successfully removed in HIV transgenic mice. Excision was confirmed in all examined tissues as well as in circulating lymphocytes and resulted in a drastic reduction of HIV-RNA (Kaminski et al. Gene Ther 2016;23:690-5). Moreover, using latently infected CD4+ T lymphocytes from HIV-infected persons, lentiviral-delivered CRISPR/Cas9 precisely removed the entire HIV genome spanning between the 50 and 30 LTRs of integrated HIV proviral DNA (Kaminski et al., Sci Rep 2016;6:22555), providing a proof of concept of the high potential of genome-editing technologies. Before moving to the clinic, the CRISPR/Cas9 technology must solve several major issues in the HIV scenario. First, generation of resistance is a major concern. Mutations may occur surrounding the targeted site and result in the selection of strains that are no longer recognized nor cleaved by CRISPR (Badia et al. Curr Opin Virol 2017;24:46-54). The efficacy of the anti-HIV CRISPR/Cas9 strategy is highly dependent on the gRNA sequence, yet some mutant viral strains show poor or no cleavage at all. Higher CRISPR/Cas9 pressure could delay but not eliminate viral replication when using a combination of distinct gRNAs targeting distinct HIV proviral genes. In this case, although the reading frame may remain unaltered, an accumulation of insertions and/or deletions may occur in the target sequence, rendering new viral strains insensitive to CRISPR/Cas9 cleavage. Finally, double-strand breaks resulting from CRISPR/Cas9 activity and subsequent cellular non-homologous end joining machinery may introduce mutations in sequences that are no longer recognized by the gRNA, and therefore not susceptible to Cas9 cleavage. A second consideration is a need for developing safe and effective mechanisms of delivery. Adenoviral vectors have long been studied in gene therapy and represent an ideal viral vector for transduction at different tissues. However, the packaging size of adenoviral vectors is a limiting factor, especially for CRIPSR/Cas9. Third, HIV has a genome of about 10 kb while a gRNA generally only targets 20 bp of the DNA molecule, which means that there are thousands available targeting sites for the provirus in latently infected cells. To date, there is no platform established solely for gRNA candidate evaluation in HIV provirus eradication. A final consideration is an access to all tissues and cells potentially harboring the HIV provirus, including reservoirs as the central nervous system. In this regard, efforts are being focused in the development of Cas9/gRNA nanoparticle formulations. To overcome these problems, a group in Florida recently developed human transgenic cells that may be used for gene-editing studies and as platform for high-throughput screen of HIV provirus disrupters (Huang et al. Sci Rep 2017;7:5955). Of note, Cas9 protein instead of a Cas9 plasmid was used. Compared to a plasmid introduction, Cas9 protein agents could be easily quantitatively applied and standardized, mimicking better real clinic scenarios. In summary, RNAi-based technologies have widely dominated gene therapy research during the past decade, with overall slow progress. However, the advent of new gene-editing technologies, and especially the CRISPR/Cas9 system, has revolutionized the field. In the HIV context, CRISPR/Cas9 applications might go further than those of RNAi, for example, enabling excision of segments of integrated proviral DNA from latently infected cells and allowing complete provirus elimination, or it may be used to reverse HIV latency. Although important challenges still need to be overcome, a promising pathway to HIV cure seems to have been found.

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