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Baltimore Sun: Maryland researchers study whether HIV cure can come from infusing patients with genetically modified ‘super T cells’

May 27, 2021 | Meredith Cohn

HIV emerging from an infected T cell, NIAID

A week ago, a Washington, D.C., man in his 30s with HIV became the first person to be infused with a heaping load of his own genetically modified cells that a Maryland biotech firm believes one day could lead to the elusive cure for the disease.

The company, Rockville-based American Gene Technologies, plans to announce the infusion today, the first of an initial six people who will receive “super T cells” in coming months.

It’s an early step in a trial primarily aimed to test for safety. But officials say it marks the next phase in years of study building on their own and others’ research into how to keep the virus from killing a person’s T cells that normally fight off infections.

“There is no guarantee, of course,” said Jeff Galvin, the company’s CEO and founder. “But there are a lot of things happening to give people hope that this product may be the functional cure or a subsequent product may be the cure.”

There are almost 38 million people globally and 1.1 million Americans living with HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, which if left untreated can lead to AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, and a host of health maladies.

There are dozens of studies underway across the globe deploying a variety of technologies to cure or better control chronic HIV infections without people having to take daily antiretroviral drugs that can come with side effects and fear of uncontrolled illness.

American Gene Technologies’ method involves taking T cells out of a person’s blood and genetically modifying them in the lab to resist infection before they are reinfused.

Dr. Robert GalloC. David Pauza is the company’s chief science officer and a former professor and researcher at the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s Institute for Human Virology.

He said the company’s beginning point — fixing T cells— isn’t new. Past efforts were not powerful enough or long-lasting enough to be considered a functional cure, where people can live disease-free indefinitely with medications even if there is still virus lingering in their bodies.

Pauza said researchers enhanced the process of modifying the T cells to make them better able to fend off HIV. The researchers also sought a way to enhance the cells so the virus couldn’t return and successfully attack the cells again later.


The company’s researchers worked with federal infectious disease researchers to cooperatively assess the method before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allowed the human study to start.

“HIV shuts off the immune response; it’s insidious,” he said. “We amped up the response massively. That’s really the new twist.”

The FDA calls for participants to be followed for 15 years, with the first check for safety in July. If the cells don’t cause any concerns, the participants could enroll sometime after that in another study phase where they stop taking their medications to see whether the cells actually stop infections.

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Contact

Institute of Human Virology
Nora Samaranayake
Director of Marketing and Public Relations
(410) 706-8614 (phone)
(410) 706-1952 (fax)
nsamaranayake@ihv.umaryland.edu

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