Could stem cells be the key to eradicating HIV?

A combination of timing, opportunity and location could be the key to discovering a cure for HIV.

Timing because ground breaking, Nobel prize-winning technology has given the space to dig further into the pandemic; opportunity because centres such as the Council for Scientific Research (CSIR) in South Africa now have access to this technology and location because the African continent is said to have the world's largest gene pool, making it the perfect place to develop the most effective stem cells.

Senior Researcher at the CSIR, Dr Janine Scholefield unpacks this stem cell technology:

There was fantastic work done by a Japanese researcher (Dr Shinya Yamanaka) in 2007, who discovered a way to coax skin cells into stem cells by exposing them to a cocktail of genes and this technology was so powerful that he won the Nobel Prize two years ago. That's the technology that we've establised in the lab over the last two years or so.

Scholefield expands on how our location could make this research most effective here:

It's been well established for a long time now that Africa holds the complete diversity of the entire world. Most of the advanced medical research has happened in the more developed countries such as the United States and parts of Europe. There's limited genetic diversity there. The problem is that when you're using limited samples to do development or research, you results are limited to what those genetic backgrounds can contribute. Whereas if you do research on our genetic background, you cover the entire world of possibilities. Africa is the home of Homo sapiens (scientific name for human beings), it all started here and spread out.

What's the link between stem cell generation and the development of an HIV cure? Scholefield breaks down the science:

We make millions of white blood cells - they're called macrophages and we do them every week as part of the technology we've been able to establish - only a few of our cell types in our body can actually be infected by HIV. We can generate these cells in the lab and then add HIV to them and try to interrogate the mechanism - how is it that HIV is hijacking the proteins in our cells to fill them to be able to invade our immune system later on? We are trying to uncover the very basic first steps that HIV is able to bypass. And you can only be able to do this kind of research with these type of blood cells.


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