TIME Mental Illness

Schizophrenia Linked to 108 Genes

In a groundbreaking study, researchers reveal a host of new genes involved in schizophrenia, making it possible to develop desperately needed treatments

It took 80,000 genetic samples, seven years and the work of 300 scientists from around the world, but scientists now have the most complete dossier on schizophrenia ever.

In an historic paper published in the journal Nature, the Schizophrenia Working Group of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium identified 108 new regions on the genome linked to the psychiatric disorder, which is associated with hallucinations and psychotic episodes and affects about 1% of people worldwide.

The genetic clues are the most dramatic hints that experts have gotten so far about what causes that mental illness. Schizophrenia has had a rocky history in the psychiatric community, with some doctors early on not even recognizing it as a disorder, and others debating whether its origins were biological or caused by traumatic events or other experiences. Now, by comparing the genomes of people with and without the disorder, it’s clear that at least some of the psychotic symptoms can be traced to changes in the genes.

“For the first time, we are starting to see the underlying biological basis of the disease, and that can lay the foundation for understanding the disorder, and eventually developing treatments,” said Eric Lander, founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, where about one third of the DNA samples were sequenced.

MORE: Older Fathers Linked to Kids’ Autism and Schizophrenia Risk

The study used genome wide association, a technique that sequences the genomes of affected and unaffected individuals, and then compares where they differ. Those DNA differences may be hints about why people develop schizophrenia in the first place, and therefore lead to new drugs or treatments.

The 108 genetic regions aren’t all located in specific genes, nor is it known yet if this is what actually causes schizophrenia. But, like evidence at a crime scene, they may point to certain molecular pathways that are responsible for the mental illness. It’s already known that some of the identified regions, for example, are involved in how adaptable or plastic the brain is, and in regulating the immune system, a connection that experts have previously not investigated before. Other genes may also reveal new ways to potentially treat the disease, a significant improvement over the existing therapies, which only address one brain system, involving dopamine. “Thorazine was approved in 1954 as the first anti-psychotic medication, and every antipsychotic since then has relied on the same fundamental mechanism of action,” Steve Hyman, director of the Broad Institute’s Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research and professor of stem cell and regenerative biology at Harvard University said. “And their efficacy has plateaued since the 1960s.”

MORE: Most Common Psychiatric Disorders Share Genetic Roots

Having a greater suite of potential areas of inquiry, the researchers hope, will attract pharmaceutical companies back to the field of mental illness. “We now have more than 100 genes pointing to distinct pathways – calcium channels, glutamate, the immune system – this is concrete stuff, and it means that the pharmaceutical companies who left [this area of drug development] because they didn’t have anything concrete to work on, are beginning to get their toes in the water, and are thinking of jumping back in the water,” says Lander.

The genetic windfall can also help scientists piece together how genetic changes may work in tandem to cause symptoms of psychoses. They warn that these advances, and new treatments, may not come in the next year, but they may be able to provide better answers to questions about which drugs may work better in which patients, and in finding ways to detect and hold off symptoms of schizophrenia earlier, before they become debilitating. All of the genetic information released in the paper will be deposited in a public database for researchers to access and advance the understanding of the disorder.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Eating More Fruits and Vegetables Doesn’t Help You Lose Weight, Study Says

Fruits and vegetables
Getty Images

Fruits and vegetables are good for your health, but there's not enough evidence to prove that on their own they can help with weight loss.

The research, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, reviewed studies that looked at fruit and vegetable consumption and weight gain, and concluded that simply eating more doesn’t doesn’t slim waistlines.

Loading up on more fruits and vegetables, without taking out more high-calorie foods like junk food, or making other lifestyle changes such as exercising, won’t have a significant affect on weight. And that’s especially true if the veggies are fried or coated in butter or cheese. In the study, the researchers only correlated fruit and vegetable consumption with weight, and did not ask the participants about their other lifestyle habits, or about how they were cooking their food.

In addition, the analysis included just nine studies, some of which involved a small group of participants and which lasted only 16 weeks at the most. It’s possible that weight changes resulting from a true change in diet including more fruits and vegetables might take longer.

For those reasons, the researchers still say that consuming more fruits and vegetables may be beneficial for weight loss. “We cannot say with high confidence that there is not some form of a [fruit/vegetable] intervention that may have significant effects on weight loss or the prevention of weight gain,” they write.

And there are other benefits of adding more fresh fruits and vegetables to your plates. Beyond weight, produce is a reliable and efficient source of nutrients and fiber, and plenty of studies have linked eating them with lower risks of cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

TIME Brain

Want to Learn a Language? Don’t Try So Hard

If at first you don't succeed, trying again might not help you when it comes to learning languages.

A new study from MIT shows that trying harder can actually make some aspects of learning a new language more difficult. While researchers have known that adults have a harder time with new languages than children do, the latest findings, published in the journal PLOS ONE, suggest that adults’ stronger cognitive abilities may actually trip them up.

Children have a “sensitive period” for learning language that lasts until puberty, and during these years, certain parts of the brain are more developed than others. For example, they are adept at procedural memory, which study author Amy Finn, a postdoc at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, describes as the “memory system we get for free.” It’s involved in tasks we learn unconsciously such as riding a bike, dancing, or subtle language rules. It’s a system that learns from observing and from experience; neural circuits in the brain build a set of rules for constructing words and sentences by absorbing and analyzing information—like sounds—from the world around them.

“The procedural memory is already in place for an infant and working well, and not interacting with other brain functions,” says Finn. However, in adulthood, this system is gradually replaced with one that’s less based on such exploratory, and energy-consuming processes. “As an adult, you have really useful late-developing memory systems that take over and do everything.”

In essence, adults may over-analyze new language rules or sounds and try to make them fit into some understandable and coherent pattern that makes sense to them. But a new language may involve grammar rules that aren’t so easily explained, and adults have more difficulty overcoming those obstacles than children, who simply absorb the rules or exceptions and learn from them. That’s especially true with pronunciation, since the way we make sounds is something that is established early in life, and becomes second nature.

“Adults are much better at picking up things that are going to immediately help them like words and things that will help them navigate a supermarket,” says Finn. “You can learn language functionally as an adult, but you’ll never sound like a native speaker.”

So how can adults remove their own roadblocks to learning new languages? Finn says more research needs to be done to determine if adults can ever go back to learning languages like children, but linguists are looking at a variety of options. A few include “turning off” certain areas of the brain using a drug or a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation, which might allow adults to be more open to accepting new language rules and sounds.

Finn also hopes to study adults performing a challenging task while they learn a language, which is another way of distracting the cognitive portions of the brain from focusing on the new language, to see if that can help them to absorb more linguistic information.

TIME tobacco

$23.6 Billion Lawsuit Winner to Big Tobacco: “Are You Awake Now?”

Cynthia Robinson with her attorneys Willie Gary (left) and Christopher Chestnut (right) as she speaks during an interview on July 21, 2014 in New York City.
Cynthia Robinson with her attorneys Willie Gary (left) and Christopher Chestnut (right) as she speaks during an interview on July 21, 2014 in New York City. Bebeto Matthews—AP

The widow who won a $23.6 billion lawsuit against R.J. Reynolds talks to TIME about the suit and what she hopes the victory will accomplish

“Are you awake now? Do you hear what the jury is saying? You have to stop,” Cynthia Robinson wants to tell the tobacco industry. The Florida widow recently won a $23.6 billion lawsuit against tobacco company R.J. Reynolds, one of the largest recent judgments on the industry, and in an interview with TIME, she says she hopes they listen to the jury’s message.

Robinson’s husband Michael Johnson died in 1996 at age of 36 from lung cancer, and in her lawsuit against R.J. Reynolds, she and her attorneys argued that the company was aware that cigarettes were addictive and caused lung cancer, but was negligent in telling smokers like Johnson about those risks.

Johnson got hooked on cigarettes when he was just 13-years-old, and eventually smoked up to three packs a day, often lighting his next cigarette with the burning end of the one he just finished. “He was a quiet person. He read the Bible every day, he took the kids swimming, he mowed the yards of all the elderly neighbors,” Robinson says. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1995 and lived for almost a year in constant pain. “The pain [from the cancer] was always there. When you’re on oxygen and you have to step outside for a cigarette, you can’t stop. You’re addicted.”

Johnson tried multiple times to stop smoking with no success. During one of her husband’s hospital visits, Robinson knew something was wrong when he began sweating and one of his eyes started to droop. The doctor said he would live for only a couple of months, but he survived for 10 more months. “He suffocated and died for so long, it was awful,” says Robinson, recalling how hard it was for her husband to breathe in the months before his death.

The day Johnson died, he could not stop coughing up blood. His brother tried to hold him up, and Robinson wanted to get him into an ambulance, but his mother told her that he was already gone. “The blood was everywhere, it was awful. Only 36 years old and he was already gone,” says Robinson.

Ten years later Robinson filled her lawsuit. It’s one of many Florida lawsuits referred to as an “Engle progeny,” stemming from a 2000 $145 billion verdict in a class action suit led Dr. Howard A. Engle, a Miami Beach pediatrician who smoked, and eventually died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The case was overturned in appeals court, and it was ruled that smokers could not make up a class. But the Engle case established that the tobacco industry had deceived Americans, by knowingly putting addictive and cancerous products on the market, and paved the way for thousands of individual Florida cases to take on Big Tobacco. On Friday July 18, Robinson did, and won her bittersweet victory.

“It was justice. It was time, and it had been a long time,” Robinson says. “I thought, oh my God, we did it. We may have to keep fighting, and will. It’s for Michael, and anyone who lost their lives to lung cancer. There are thousands right now dying of lung cancer. Michael died so young, he missed graduations and weddings.”

“We expected every dime and more,” says Robinson’s attorney Willie E Gary. “Johnson started smoking when he was a teen. How aware of the risks can you be at that age? But [the tobacco industry] would market and target kids. To this day they are going after our youth, stuffing their pockets. It’s all about the profits and it’s nothing about the health and safety of the people.”

As TIME reported earlier this week, R.J. Reynolds plans to appeal, and based on the industry’s track record with lawsuits, the damages will likely be lowered. Gary isn’t deterred: ” We expect to win. Winning is not about getting everything that you want. We know that we made a difference.”

It’s small consolation for losing her husband, but Robinson is satisfied that her time, effort, and daily prayers were enough to topple Goliath, at least in court last Friday. “We had to go all the way no matter how many years it took. Life has been lost,” she says. For the thousands of other pending lawsuits, she urges plaintiffs to persevere. “Don’t give up no matter how much they try to discourage and belittle you, you fight them to the very end, and you’ll succeed,” she says.

 

TIME Infectious Disease

MERS Could Be Airborne, Research Indicates

The disease has already claimed 288 lives

Findings from a scientific paper published Tuesday indicated that Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) may be able to spread through the air.

A research team in Saudi Arabia collected air samples from a camel barn that the virus had previously plagued. Their analysis of the air sample tested positive for a strain of MERS RNA, CNN reports.

The possibility of MERS as an airborne illness has been previously floated after reports said that some of those infected previously had close contact to fellow MERS patients. The disease has claimed at least 288 live, according to the World Health Organization.

However, scientists are hesitant to jump to conclusions from these findings. “What they say is that virus particles can be airborne, but it’s premature to conclude that MERS is transmitted through aerosols,” said Dr. Mark Denison, a Vanderbilt University School of Medicine professor.

“Do we still need to consider the possibility of airborne transmission?” Denison added. “Yes, of course.”

[CNN]

TIME

Federal Appeals Court Deals Blow to Health Law

(WASHINGTON) — A federal appeals court has delivered a serious setback to President Barack Obama’s health care law, potentially derailing subsidies for many low- and middle-income people who have bought policies.

If upheld, the decision could mean premium increases for more than half of the 8 million Americans who purchased taxpayer-subsidized insurance under the law.

It affects consumers who purchased their coverage through the federal insurance marketplace — or exchange— that serves 36 states.

A three-judge panel in Washington ruled 2-1 that the law, as written, only allows insurance subsidies in states that have set up their own exchanges. That invalidated an Internal Revenue Service regulation that allowed subsidies in all 50 states.

TIME Cancer

It’s Unlikely Tobacco Company Will Pay $23.6 Billion

Based on the industry's track record, the second-largest tobacco company probably won't pay the billions in damages it owes to a Florida widow

Big Tobacco took a hit on Friday when a court ordered the second-largest tobacco company in the U.S. to pay damages to a Florida widow who had sued them for her husband’s smoking-related death. However, it’s unlikely that the company will pay full price for its negligence.

Although the verdict will likely stand, tobacco company R.J. Reynolds says it plans to appeal the $23.6 billion that the jury determined it owed widow Cynthia Robinson. Based on the industry’s track record, that will likely result in them paying far less.

Robinson’s husband, Michael Johnson, began chain-smoking when he was 13-years-old and died at the young age of 36 in 1996. A decade after her husband’s untimely death, Robinson took the cigarette-makers to court, saying they were not forthcoming about the extremely harmful effects of their product, suing them for not informing the public that smoking was addictive. And almost another decade later, she proved her case.

Unsurprisingly, R.J. Reynolds, whose holding company Reynolds American Inc. recently announced a $27 billion deal to buy out rival Lorillard, contested the verdict. “Regardless of the rhetoric surrounding this case, the damages awarded are grossly excessive and impermissible under state and constitutional law,” said Jeff Raborn, vice president and assistant general counsel for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in a statement sent to TIME. “We will file post-trial motions with the trial court promptly, requesting that the verdict in the case be set aside. We are confident that the law will be followed and the punitive damages verdict will not be allowed to stand.”

Raborn is probably right.

“It is quite likely, bordering on certainty, that the amount of punitive damages will be reduced, though it is unclear how much,” says John Banzhaf, a law professor at George Washington University known for his successful litigations against the tobacco industry. There’s not a lot of dispute among the legal community that the verdict will be reduced–probably substantially. Prior verdicts against Big Tobacco demanding billions in court have been reduced to millions–something the industry, which spends about $23 million on cigarette marketing each day, can pay off rather comfortably. In 2009, Phillip Morris failed to overturn a $79.5 million punitive-damages ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court, and business continued as usual.

“This doesn’t set a legal precedent, but the result of this verdict has people asking how much money will it take to deter tobacco companies? Previous verdicts against tobacco companies have been treated as just the cost of doing business,” says Richard Daynard, a law professor at Northeastern University who specializes in tobacco control. So far, no verdict has changed the economic fundamentals of the industry. But this time, the industry might being feeling less confident.

“I think this is the first time in many years that tobacco companies are going to have to start thinking about really doing something different,” says Daynard. After all, it’s likely we will see many more cases like Robinson’s land similar verdicts in Florida, and it’s possible that similar lawsuits will start to pop up nationwide.

Robinson’s case is one of thousands of lawsuits referred to as an “Engle progeny,” which was developed after a $145 billion verdict in favor of a class action lawsuit led by Dr. Howard A. Engle, a Miami Beach pediatrician. The award was voided in appeals court, under the finding that individual smokers could not make up a class. Though the tobacco industry did not have to pay the award, which was the largest punitive damages payment decided by a jury, the decision opened the floodgates for individual cases to head to Florida court with the support of the Engle case, which proved that the tobacco industry knew cigarettes were addictive, and failed to warn the public.

“The [Robinson] case indicates that juries, when a case is properly presented, are willing to sock it to tobacco companies,” says Banzhaf. “They are angry as hell at these tobacco companies, and when an attorney presents a strong case, they are willing to hit them, and hit them hard.”

Banzhaf says the case will likely motivate attorneys in other states that are less gung-ho to take on Big Tobacco. Lawyers in states like New York, California, and Washington with good tobacco control track records, he said, are likely “salivating” at the future possibilities.

Banzhaf believes that the public is finally grasping the health implications of smoking and is now willing to punish those that profit from it. The numbers seem to support this claim: smoking rates are down 2.8% since 2005 according to CDC data, and smokers can be charged up to 50% more under Obamacare. “Clearly the public is angry. But the courts have to allow damages that are substantially higher than ordinary damages,” says Banzhaf.”Hitting them with $16 million is pocket change.”

It will be no surprise if the final bill for R.J. Reynolds is significantly lower than what the Florida jury determined to be sufficient, but it’s encouraging for the pending cases. “About 70% of Engle cases that have gone to verdict have gone in favor of the plaintiff,” says Daynard. “There are thousands more of these cases pending. Any of them could produce a jury verdict like this because it’s the same misbehavior.”

Unfortunately, the tobacco industry can also produce the same appeals solution they’ve achieved successfully in the past.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Yogurt Could Lower Your Blood Pressure: New Study

The latest study links certain probiotics with better blood pressure control

Bacteria aren’t the first allies we turn to for staying healthy – there are enough strains that can cause serious illness, after all – but there’s growing evidence that certain strains of the bugs can actually be good for your health, and may even relieve symptoms of inflammatory conditions, allergies and possibly even obesity.

In the latest report on these microbial allies, researchers add one more possible benefit of probiotics – the live concoctions of bacteria contained in foods like yogurt. In an analysis of nine studies that looked at probiotic use and blood pressure, the report in the journal Hypertension found that people using probiotics tend to have lower blood pressure compared to those who didn’t eat them. The effects seemed to be stronger among those with higher blood pressure to begin with, and among those consuming multiple probiotic strains and in higher doses.

What do bacteria have to do with blood pressure? The researchers say that the micro-organisms could be helping to address hypertension in a variety of ways, from lowering cholesterol levels, which can contribute to less fatty buildup in the vessels and therefore reduce the chances of developing hypertension, to controlling blood sugar and keeping the enzymes and proteins that control blood flow and fluid volumes in check.

The results aren’t exactly a prescription for treating hypertension — at least not yet. But they raise the interesting possibility of incorporating a probiotic regimen into blood pressure management. The study authors admit, however, that more questions still need to be answered, such as which micro-organisms might be associated with the strongest effect on blood pressure, as well as which combinations of bacterial strains work best. The formulation of the probiotic may also be important, they say – in the studies they reviewed, participants consumed probiotics primarily from yogurt, but also from cheese, sour milk and supplements (liquid or capsules). Hitting the right threshold of microbes also seems to be important, and figuring out that volume is also essential before any advice about using probiotics to lower blood pressure is given.

TIME vaccines

RFK Jr. Joins the Anti-Vaccine Fringe

RFK, Jr.: Big bullhorn, bad ideas
RFK, Jr.: Big bullhorn, bad ideas Ethan Miller; 2014 Getty Images

A man who used to tell hard truths now peddles dangerous nonsense

There are lots of places to go if you want dangerous crazytalk. There are websites, blog threads, cable channels trafficking in all kinds of addled nonsense about birther conspiracies and one-world governments. And then there was Robert Kennedy, Jr., the tireless, honest climate hero long famous for fighting the very good fight.

But that was then. RFK, Jr. may still know a thing or two about global warming, but he has taken a disreputable plunge into the world of anti-science with his new and inexplicable crusade: warning people about the dangers of vaccines.

Let’s be clear: Kennedy will tell you he’s not against vaccines themselves, but rather, against thimerosal, a vaccine preservative purportedly responsible for the rise in autism in the U.S. He’s even publishing a new book—Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak—making this frightening point. The problem is: he’s wrong—utterly wrong, so wrong it’s hard even to know what the biggest piece of that wrongness is.

But let’s start with a single fact that ought to be, as the lawyers like to say, dispositive: the thimerosal ain’t there. With the exception of the flu vaccine, it was removed from or reduced to trace levels in all vaccines given to children under 6-years-old 13 years ago. You face a greater mercury risk eating seafood and fish—and even that danger is low enough that the EPA recently recommended that pregnant and nursing women increase their intake of certain kinds of fish because the nutritional benefits outweigh the theoretical dangers.

Kennedy is wrong on basic epidemiology too. Autism diagnoses have indeed risen steadily in the U.S. in recent years, but that has been happening in the same period in which thimerosal levels in vaccines plunged. When your cause goes away and your reputed effect increases, well, you really do need to review your class notes on what cause and effect mean in the first place.

Most fundamentally, Kennedy does not get chemistry. Thimerosal is an ethylmercury product. Mercury in general may be a neurotoxin, but it’s in its methylmercury form that it does its damage—and only in particular concentrations. The quantity of ethylmercury that was once in vaccines was so small that it was actually within acceptable limits for the more toxic, methyl form—but it wasn’t even in that methyl form to begin with.

Kennedy, more than most anti-vaxxers, really ought to know better. In his long career as a climate crusader he has had to answer the febrile claims from the denialists that the whole threat of global warming is a conspiracy cooked up by “grant-grubbing scientists” and liberal politicians looking to expand the role of government. Yet when it comes to vaccines, he clangs the same loony-tune bells.

As long ago as 2005, he published an anti-vax article in Rolling Stone claiming to reveal how “government health agencies colluded with Big Pharma to hide the risks of thimerosal from the public.” And Keith Kloor, the author of a new Washington Post Magazine profile of Kennedy, reports that last year, in response to a story he wrote on the Discover magazine website labeling this kind of thinking as the nonsense that it is, Kennedy called him up and said bluntly, “I’m trying to figure out whether you are a shill for Big Pharma.”

The worst—and the least explicable—thing about Kennedy and his new cause is the company he keeps. His book is being put out by Skyhorse Publishing—an outfit that also includes the disgraced Andrew Wakefield in its stable of authors. Wakefield is the U.K. investigator whose fraudulent 1998 paper purporting to link autism to the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine set off the entire anti-vaccine wildfire. In 2010, The Lancet formally withdrew the 1998 paper and Wakefield has since been banned from practicing medicine in the U.K. And as for the company Wakefield himself keeps? The foreword to his book was written by Jenny McCarthy.

Kennedy may deeply believe the rubbish he’s peddling—but science doesn’t care about your sincerity; it cares about the facts. That doesn’t mean he’s not in a position to do real harm. Like McCarthy, he has a big soapbox and a loud bullhorn, and every parent he frightens into skipping vaccinations means one more child who is in danger.

In the Washington Post profile, Kennedy complains about the trouble he’s having getting his anti-vaccine message across. “I’m completely f***ing alone on this,” he gripes. Well, good. He deserves to be alone, and if fewer people than he hoped are listening to him, that’s a positive sign.

TIME HIV

Researchers Find New Way to Kick Out HIV From Infected Cells

Scanning electron micrograph of HIV-1
Scanning electron micrograph of HIV-1 Getty Images

The technique addresses the problem of hidden reservoirs of HIV in the body, and could herald a new way of battling the viral infection

Once HIV invades the body, it doesn’t want to leave. Every strategy that scientists have developed or are developing so far to fight the virus – from powerful anti-HIV drugs to promising vaccines that target it – suffers from the same weakness. None can ferret out every last virus in the body, and HIV has a tendency to hide out, remaining inert for years, until it flares up again to cause disease.

None, that is, until now. Kamel Khalili, director of the Comprehensive NeuroAIDS Center at Temple University School of Medicine, and his colleagues took advantage of a new gene editing technique to splice the virus out of the cells they infected – essentially returning them to their pre-infection state. The strategy relies on detecting and binding HIV-related genetic material, and therefore represents the first anti-HIV platform that could find even the dormant virus sequestered in immune cells.

MORE: Treatment as Prevention: How the New Way to Control HIV Came to Be

Even more encouraging, they also used the system to arm healthy cells from getting infected in the first place, by building genetic blockades that bounced off HIV’s genetic material. “It’s what we call a sterilizing cure,” says Khalili.

His work was done on human cells infected with HIV in cell culture, but, he believes the results are robust enough to move into animal trials and eventually into testing the idea in human patients.

The key to the strategy is the gene editing technique known as CRISPR, a way of precisely cutting DNA at pre-specified locations. CRISPR acts as a customizable pair of molecular scissors that can be programmed to find certain sequences of DNA and then, using an enzyme, make cuts at those locations. Because HIV is a retrovirus, its genetic material comes in the form of RNA; the virus co-opts a host cell’s genetic machinery to transform that RNA into DNA, which it then inserts into the cell’s genome. HIV’s genes, which it needs to survive, then get churned out by the cell.

MORE: David Ho: The Man Who Could Beat AIDS

Khalili designed a CRISPR that recognized the beginning and end of HIV’s DNA contribution, and then watched as the enzyme snipped out HIV from the cell’s genome. “I’ve been working with HIV almost since day 1 [of the epidemic] and we have developed a number of molecules that can suppress transcription or diminish replication of the virus. But I have never seen this level or eradication,” he says. “When you remove the viral genes from the chromosomes, basically you convert the cells to their pre-infection state.”

The advantage of the system lies in the fact that CRISPR can recognize viral genes wherever they are – in infected cells that are actively dividing, and in infected cells in which the virus is dormant. Current drug-based strategies can only target cells that are actively dividing and releasing more HIV, which is why they often lead to periods of undetectable virus but then cause levels of HIV to rise again. That’s the case with the Mississippi baby, who was born HIV positive and given powerful anti-HIV drugs hours after birth and appeared to be functionally cured of HIV when the virus couldn’t be detected for nearly four years, but then returned.

MORE: Rethinking HIV: After Five Years of Debate, a New Push for Prevention

Khalili admits that more work needs to be done to validate the strategy, and ensure that it’s safe. But it’s the start, he says, of a potential strategy for eradicating the virus from infected individuals. That may involve excising the virus as well as bombarding it with anti-HIV drugs. “We can get into cells, eradicate the viral genome, and that’s it,” he says.

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