Immunochemical Engineering of Cell Surfaces: A Conversation with Dr. Jia Xie

Researcher Jia Xie discusses a cutting-edge treatment in development
by Dann Dulin

Jia Xie, PhD. Photo by Madeline McCurry-Schmidt

Block HIV by using the body’s own immune cells? Is it truly possible?!

Well, such a treatment is in the works, according to Jia Xie, senior staff scientist at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) in La Jolla, California, and author of a new study: “Immunochemical Engineering of Cell Surfaces to Generate Virus Resistance.”

The objective of the Scripps scientists is to eradicate HIV from the body of an infected person, eliminating the need for daily medication. The scientists are hopeful. Their findings reveal that HIV-fighting antibodies can be attached to a person’s own immune cells to promote resistance to the virus.

Jia, first author of the study, made the initial observation. The study was then developed with his supervisor, Dr. Richard Lerner. The study is published in the April 10, 2017 edition of the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

This is only a first step. The next step is to test the treatment in animals. If successful, clinical trials in people would follow.

“The AIDS epidemic is a real problem, bigger than most people imagine,” asserts Jia, thirty-five. Raised in a small town outside of Beijing, China, Jia has been employed with TSRI for six years, after receiving a PhD from the University of Connecticut in 2011.

Last year he was wholly inspired when he and his wife of seven years joined in the AIDS Walk San Diego. Commenting on the recent arrival of a baby girl, Jia cheerily remarks, “Life has become a lot busier now!”

Dann Dulin: Jia, please elaborate on your findings.
Jia Xie: In our study, we attach antibodies to the docking site of a person’s immune cells where the virus would normally attach itself. The antibody prevents the attachment of the virus.

What happens then?
The modified cells are protected long-term and can multiply, passing on the protective gene to new cells. These modified cells could eventually take over the whole cell population and stop virus propagation in the body. No repetitive treatments would be needed. This is a form of cellular vaccination.

It differs from other therapies because antibodies are tethered directly to healthy cells, rather than floating freely throughout the bloodstream.

Are tethered antibodies more effective than free-floating ones?
Yes. We confirmed that tethered antibodies did block HIV more effectively.

I understand that your group is partnering with City of Hope, which focuses on care, research, and education related to cancer, diabetes, and other diseases….
City of Hope currently has active clinical gene therapy trials to treat HIV using blood stem cell transplantation. They have a lot of expertise in transplantation and through our collaboration together we hope to provide an effective treatment for patients.

How would the treatment be administered?
If this becomes an approved therapy, most likely blood would be drawn, treated, and then infused back into the body. Hopefully, only one treatment would be needed.

The study is geared toward those infected, but could it benefit those who are not?
Perhaps, but it would have the greatest efficacy for those who are already infected. In theory, we may be able to gradually reduce the percentage of infected cells, eventually leading to either the complete elimination of the infected cells or keeping them at minimal level.

Sounds as though this could potentially be a cure.
We would have to observe the effect in patients before claiming that it’s a cure, although theoretically it could be.

What is the forecast for this study, Jia?
I’m pretty optimistic about the outcome.

Dann Dulin is a Senior Editor at A&U.