Ethical and practical considerations for cell and gene therapy toward an HIV cure: findings from a qualitative in-depth interview study in the United States

BMC Med Ethics. 2022 Apr 9;23(1):39. doi: 10.1186/s12910-022-00780-1.


Background: HIV cure research involving cell and gene therapy has intensified in recent years. There is a growing need to identify ethical standards and safeguards to ensure cell and gene therapy (CGT) HIV cure research remains valued and acceptable to as many stakeholders as possible as it advances on a global scale.

Methods: To elicit preliminary ethical and practical considerations to guide CGT HIV cure research, we implemented a qualitative, in-depth interview study with three key stakeholder groups in the United States: (1) biomedical HIV cure researchers, (2) bioethicists, and (3) community stakeholders. Interviews permitted evaluation of informants' perspectives on how CGT HIV cure research should ethically occur, and were transcribed verbatim. We applied conventional content analysis focused on inductive reasoning to analyze the rich qualitative data and derive key ethical and practical considerations related to CGT towards an HIV cure.

Results: We interviewed 13 biomedical researchers, 5 community members, and 1 bioethicist. Informants generated considerations related to: perceived benefits of CGT towards an HIV cure, perceived risks, considerations necessary to ensure an acceptable benefit/risk balance, CGT strategies considered unacceptable, additional ethical considerations, and considerations for first-in-human CGT HIV cure trials. Informants also proposed important safeguards to developing CGT approaches towards an HIV cure, such as the importance of mitigating off-target effects, mitigating risks associated with long-term duration of CGT interventions, and mitigating risks of immune overreactions.

Conclusion: Our study identified preliminary considerations for CGT-based HIV cure across three key stakeholder groups. Respondents identified an ideal cure strategy as one which would durably control HIV infection, protect the individual from re-acquisition, and eliminate transmission to others. Known and unknown risks should be anticipated and perceived as learning opportunities to preserve and honor the altruism of participants. Preclinical studies should support these considerations and be transparently reviewed by regulatory experts and peers prior to first-in-human studies. To protect the public trust in CGT HIV cure research, ethical and practical considerations should be periodically revisited and updated as the science continues to evolve. Additional ethics studies are required to expand stakeholder participation to include traditionally marginalized groups and clinical care providers.

Keywords: Cell and gene therapy; Empirical ethics research; HIV; HIV cure research; People living with HIV.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Ethicists
  • Genetic Therapy
  • HIV Infections* / prevention & control
  • Humans
  • Qualitative Research
  • Research Personnel
  • United States