Sir Aaron Klug, a Nobel laureate working at the Medical Research Council's Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, has developed a more efficient way to target genes, so gene therapy can be done with surgical precision. They have modified a piece of natural cellular machinery called "zinc fingers".
They have devised synthetic versions, called zinc-fingered nucleases, which have the capacity to recognise specific sequences of DNA which makes them extremely good at latching on to a specific spot, targeting particular genes without affecting others, so they can carry out genetic surgery to knock out genes or introduce new ones.
The new method is already being tested on more than 100 young diabetic patients who have lost sensation, a common complication, by the Californian company Sangamo BioSciences, after encouraging results in preliminary tests of the method to introduce a gene encoding a growth factor that can help restore sensation.
Sir Aaron explains: "The beauty of zinc-finger nucleases lies in their simplicity. Where other methods are long, arduous and often messy, it is relatively easy to switch off genes using this method.
"The zinc-finger design allows us to target a single gene, while the nuclease disrupts the gene. The single step process is extremely quick and reliable and opens up exciting possibilities for research and gene therapy."
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Animal trials are already under way to use the technique to knock out the receptor of HIV in immune system T-cells of patients with Aids.
If successful this will render the T-cells immune from HIV infection, and enable them to fight disease.
Clinical trials to aid patients with blocked blood vessels are also under way.