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NIH launches $100 million effort to cure HIV, sickle cell

Advances in gene editing tech provide hope for ‘single injection’ cure

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cure HIV, gay news, Washington Blade

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, told the Blade a new initiative is aimed at taking gene research to a new level. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The National Institutes of Health announced on Oct. 23 it is launching a $100 million initiative over the next four years to fund research to develop gene-based cures for HIV and sickle cell disease.

The NIH announcement says the initiative will work in collaboration with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which will also invest $100 million toward gene research for an HIV and sickle cell disease cure.

“Dramatic advances in genetics over the last decade have made effective gene-based treatments a reality, including new treatments for blindness and certain types of leukemia,” an NIH statement says.

“The collaboration between the NIH and the Gates Foundation sets out a bold goal of advancing safe, effective and durable gene-based cures to clinical trials in the United States and relevant countries in sub-Saharan Africa within the next seven to ten years,” the statement says.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, which is an arm of NIH, told the Blade the new initiative is aimed at taking gene research to a new level that has yet to be developed. According to Fauci, the goal is to develop a means of genetically altering disease fighting cells in the body to enable them to protect against HIV through a single injection.

He noted that the current line of research, which is nearing the stage of clinical trials on humans, involves withdrawing blood from the body, extracting disease fighting T-cells from the blood in a laboratory, genetically changing the cells to enable them to successfully kill HIV and prevent someone from being infected, and then to “reinfuse” the altered cells back into the person’s body.

This is a highly expensive process that requires hospitalization, Fauci said, making it difficult to put in place for the large number of people who need it, especially populations in developing countries in Africa.

“We’re talking about something that is highly aspirational with an extremely high reward,” he said. “That is to develop a delivery system that you can essentially with one injection give it to a person and have that delivery system bring the appropriate gene editing tools to whatever cells you want to bring them to,” he said.

Fauci said this system, if it can be technologically achieved, would provide a genetic cure for HIV that could become available on a massive scale in the U.S. and developing countries throughout the world.

“Whether or not we’re going to succeed, we don’t know,” he said. “But we’re going to try.”

He said the combined $200 million from NIH and the Gates Foundation would be made available to qualified independent researchers or researchers affiliated with universities or with private companies working on gene editing technology.

One such company, American Gene Technologies of Rockville, Md., has developed a gene editing process for a possible HIV cure that it believes is ready for human testing. In an announcement last month, the company said it has submitted an Investigational New Drug document, or IND, to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to obtain final approval for clinical trials on humans.

The company’s gene editing process involves extracting cells from the body, genetically editing the cells in a laboratory, and reinfusing them into the person’s body. Although this requires a hospital or clinic visit and isn’t the more advanced process that Fauci says NIH is now working toward, if successful, it would be the first-ever full cure for HIV through gene therapy.

“We are pleased to see the scientific community backing a strategy American Gene Technologies has been pursuing for many years,” said AGT spokesperson Norman Rogers. “Like the NIH, we believe a cure deliverable to developing nations is a critical goal, especially in the landscape of gene and cell therapy where the efficiencies are more than doubling every year as the costs halve,” he said. “In that environment, anything is possible.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

Justice Breyer announces his retirement from high court sets up new battle

President Joe Biden told reporters that he would have “more to say later” about Justice Breyer’s retirement

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U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer (Photo Credit: SCOTUS official portrait)

WASHINGTON – U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, who had joined landmark decisions from the Court in support of LGBTQ rights, announced on Wednesday he’d retire, opening up a new battle over the judiciary and the potential for President Biden to add his first nominee to the high court.

First reported by NBC News, the retirement of Breyer, appointed by former Bill Clinton and confirmed in 1994, fulfills a wish among progressives for him to step down for him to step down to ensure a replacement would be named with Biden in the White House and Democrats in control of the U.S. Senate.

President Joe Biden told reporters that he would have “more to say later” about Justice Breyer’s retirement, but said that he was waiting for the justice’s own statement.

“There has been no announcement from Justice Breyer — let him make whatever statement he wants to make, and I’m happy to talk about it later,” the president remarked.

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Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania borough revokes protections for its LGBTQ+ citizens

The Republican-majority Chambersburg Borough Council made good on its promise repealing the ordinance in the 7-3 vote

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Chambersburg Borough Council voting to repeal protections for LGBTQ residents (Screenshot via ZOOM)

CHAMBERSBURG – The council of this central Pennsylvania borough (town) met on Monday, and voted to repeal an ordinance passed this last October that safeguards residents against discrimination based on their sexual orientation, ethnicity or gender identity.

The Republican-majority Chambersburg Borough Council made good on its promise repealing the ordinance in the 7-3 vote, citing a litany of reasons.

Opposition to the ordinance was led by newly installed borough council president Allen Coffman, a Republican. 

Coffman told Penn Live prior to the vote this past week that the ordinance serves no purpose and is redundant. He points out that Pennsylvania’s Human Relations Commission handles discrimination complaints from residents across the state.

“There are no penalties, no fines,” he said. “There’s nothing that the ordinance can make someone do. The most they can hope for is that the committee request the two parties to sit down with a counselor or mediator and talk about it. Quite frankly there is nothing that compels them to. There’s no teeth in this.”

“We are a very diverse community,” said council vice president Bill Everly, a lifelong resident. “For that reason I don’t understand why we need to have special protections for people. I think by creating special protections for people we open the door for other protections for other people. I think we need to come together and not divide us. I think this would divide us.”

“I don’t know of any reasons for repealing it other than a political move,” said Alice Elia, a Democrat and the former Chambersburg borough council president. “This issue should not be politicized. It’s an issue of justice and having equal protection for everybody in our community. It shouldn’t be a political or a Democratic or Republican issue. This should be something we are all concerned about.”

For more than three hours, council heard the impassioned pleas from scores of borough residents, overwhelmingly speaking out in support for the ordinance. Only a few borough residents spoke in favor of repeal, Penn Live reported.

Some visibly overcome with emotion, resident after resident implored council members to keep intact the ordinance citing a litany of personal challenges faced as members of the LGBTQ community, while others spoke about the stain on the reputation of the borough if repealed.

“It feels like we are going backwards,” said Kierstin Stockum, a borough resident. “This is just protecting somebody. Why would we not want that as a community? A repeal says we not welcoming to anybody whether LGBTQ or not. It’s saying we discriminate here. Why would we want to send that message?”

Dawn Abraham, a high school teacher and cosponsor of the gay-straight alliance, noted that the LGBTQ population at Chambersburg High School had grown exponentially in recent years.

“Kids are reporting being bullied, being pushed down the stairs, barked at and called multiple expletives,” she said. “By pulling support for this you are showing our community that you don’t support the school children in the community.”

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is one of the 27 states in the nation that have no explicit statewide laws protecting people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations.

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Federal Government

Federal Bureau of Prisons revises manual for incarcerated Trans people

“Transgender Offender Manual,” improves policies relating to the housing and treatment of transgender people in federal custody

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Los Angeles Blade file photo/screenshot

WASHINGTON – The federal Bureau of Prisons issued this week long awaited revisions to the “Transgender Offender Manual,” improving policies relating to the housing and treatment of Transgender people in federal custody.

The new Manual rescinds the transphobic language added by the prior administration that weakened protections for incarcerated Trans people– who are already 10 times more likely than the general prison population to be targeted for violence – and undercut compliance with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) and constitutional protections. 

Among other changes, the updated guidance requires that in making housing unit and programming assignments serious consideration must be given to an incarcerated Trans or intersex person’s own views with respect to their safety. It explicitly states that deliberately and repeatedly mis-gendering an inmate is not permitted. And it includes a process for an incarcerated person to receive gender-affirming surgery.

In 2018, Lambda Legal and the Southern Poverty Law Center sued the U.S. Department of Justice and the BOP for documents and communications connected to the Trump Administration’s harmful and discriminatory changes to the Transgender Offender Manual

“The federal BOP has issued important new guidelines that will hopefully help keep Transgender people in its custody safe and provide access to life-saving healthcare including gender-affirming surgery,” said Richard Saenz, Lambda Legal Senior Attorney and Criminal Justice and Police Misconduct Strategist. “This reaffirms the constitutional rights of incarcerated Transgender people and should be an example for state prisons systems and local jails to do their duty to keep people in their custody safe.” 

“We would like to thank the BOP and our partners for working on these changes. And would like to thank Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i) for his calls to reverse the previous administration’s harmful changes to the manual,” Saenz added.  

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