Stem Cells are Back, and They Could Cure HIV

Stem Cells are Back, and They Could Cure HIV

By: Sabina Wex

Main points:

-A Mississippi baby thought to be cured of HIV relapsed

-Yuet Kan has discovered a way to use the CRISPR-Cas9 system to alter stem cells to resist HIV

-Using a genetic, rather than drug-based, alternative can help prevent HIV, even if it’s not a cure

Full story:

In July 2014, Dr. Hannah Gay revealed that the 27 month treatment she used to eradicate HIV from a Mississippi baby failed. The baby’s progress was positive as the copies of HIV lowered as the treatment continued. Gay’s team and medical journal writers across America pronounced this baby to contain the HIV curing model, if it can be replicated.

HIV identical to its mother returned to the baby with 16,000 copies: too many to be a mere relapse. The doctors admitted defeat.

Yuet Kan of the University of California, San Francisco discovered a way to alter the genome in an attempt to protect against HIV.

Kan believes that the alteration of the genome’s induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) can create a rare mutation that resists HIV. Through genome editing, which removes a specific DNA sequence and replaces it with another, Kan can alter the stem cells with the CRISPR-Cas9 system. The system works within bacteria, taking DNA fragments from invading viruses and splicing them into the cell’s own DNA. The cells can then recognize the virus and attack it when spotted.

The white blood cells that grew from the altered stem cells were tested and show to be resistant to HIV.

This CRISPR-Cas9 system only works to prevent HIV. When HIV is already in the white blood cells, the Mississippi baby has proved that drugs and attacking the body’s immune system aren’t enough.

Gay and her team were using a triple-drug treatment with antiretroviral on the Mississippi baby. This helped control the HIV, but didn’t fully cure it.

Kan is working on a way to convert iPSCs into transplantable blood-forming stem cells, which could create all types of blood cells if transmitted into the body.


Kan’s innovation is a way to figure out how to not only prevent HIV, but actually cure it, saving hundreds of thousands people each year. While Kan’s innovation is currently for developed-nations, he hopes his innovation can be taken to developing-nations.


Sabina Wex is in her second year at the University of King’s College studying Classics and Early Modern Studies. She is the assistant news editor for the Dalhousie Gazette. Author Twitter Handle: @sabuwex

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