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Stem cells could lead new fight against HIV, AIDS
  BETSY MASON; Knight Ridder Newspapers
Published: November 4th, 2005 03:00 AM
SAN FRANCISCO - Nearly 10 years after the development of anti-viral drugs to treat HIV and AIDS, scientists are poised to attack the deadly virus with a new weapon: stem cells.
Researchers at UCLA are working on ways to arm blood stem cells in bone marrow against HIV.
Although the strategy doesn't amount to a cure, it might be more effective than current anti-viral treatments and some day could have the potential to immunize people against the virus.
HIV attacks several types of blood cells that are part of the immune system.
"If you can target the blood-forming stem cell, that cell gives rise to all blood cells," said virologist Jerome Zack of UCLA. "So, therefore, if you could protect that cell, then every other cell derived from that would be protected."
Zack presented his research Wednesday at a meeting of the Independent Citizen's Oversight Committee, the 27-member group created by Proposition 71 to direct the state of California's stem cell research program.
The urgency to develop better treatments for HIV is particularly acute in San Francisco, where the disease has affected about 25 percent of the gay male population, said Robert Klein, chairman of the oversight committee.
"Every day the situation gets worse," said ICOC board member Jeff Sheehy of the University of California San Francisco AIDS Research Institute. "Every day 8,500 people in this world die of AIDS. Every day 14,000 new infections occur across the globe."
Current anti-viral therapies available to people with HIV and AIDS can suppress the virus and extend many patients' lives.
But treatments involve a lifetime of daily medications with toxic side effects.
Zack hopes stem cell therapy could be a better strategy for fighting the virus. Along with UCLA's Ronald Mitsuyasu, a researcher and doctor who treats AIDS and HIV patients, Zack is devising a way to insert a gene into bone marrow stem cells that can either prevent the virus from infecting the cells or deactivate any virus already in the cells.
The idea is to replace the gene that is vulnerable to attack by HIV with a synthetically engineered piece of DNA designed to seek out and destroy the virus. The DNA fragment, known as a ribozyme, is tailored specifically to bind to the virus and cut it in half, rendering it harmless.
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