One protein found in white blood cells is leading to a big payout for science.

Jay Johnson, 54, knows that he’s truly beaten the odds.

“When I got diagnosed back in ’91, it was a death sentence,” he said.

For decades, a combination of anti-retroviral drugs has kept the HIV virus at bay.

“Nobody wants to live with this,” he explained. “They really do not.”

Researchers have found a way to control HIV without the use of drugs by doctoring a patient’s cells to resist infection.

The target is one protein on the surface of white blood cells called a CCR5 receptor.

University of Pennsylvania researchers have taken white blood cells from patients and modified them with a specially designed molecule. It’s called a zinc finger nuclease, and causes mutation that reduces CCR5 on the surfaces of the cells. Without it, the HIV cannot enter.

“This is like a cruise missile specifically directed to this one gene in all of the 23,000 genes in the human genome,” Dr. Bruce Levine, a University of Pennsylvania pathologist, said.

The modified cells are reproduced in the lab without the CCR5, frozen, and then infused back into the patient.

Researchers say this is not a cure for HIV; but it is one step in a combination that may someday make the virus obsolete.

HIV New Treatment without use of Drugs

“It will be amazing if one day I can say I’m HIV negative again,” Johnson said.

There was a dramatic spike in the modified cells in most patients.

This was noticed as early as one week after infusion.

Doctors also detected the modified cells in lymph tissue, suggesting the cells were functioning normally.

Some of the patients who went off their normal drugs during the gene therapy retained lower amounts of the HIV in their systems.

In one patient, HIV levels became undetectable.