Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, have discovered that human stem cells could be engineered to kill HIV-infected cells.

A study published yesterday in the peer reviewed online journal PLoS ONE details a demonstration of the process, which is essentially a genetic medicine.

It is thought that the findings could potentially could be used against a range of chronic viral diseases.

The process involved taking CD8 cytotoxic T lymphocytes, known as “killer” T cells that help fight infection, from an HIV-positive person.

Researchers were able to identify the molecule present in the T cells which allow them to fight cells infected with HIV. T cells exist in the human body but not in large enough quantities to kill the virus completely.

The molecule was then cloned and placed in genetically-engineered stem cells, which were put into the bodies of mice. It was found that the cells developed into mature, HIV-specific CD8 cells which were able to target cells infected with the HIV virus.

Researchers found that human patients undergoing the treatment would have to matched to the HIV-specific T cell receptors in the same way as organ transplants.

Lead investigator Scott G Kitchen, assistant professor of medicine at the university, said: “These studies lay the foundation for further therapeutic development that involves restoring damaged or defective immune responses toward a variety of viruses that cause chronic disease, or even different types of tumours.”

Researchers say the next step is to find out whether the process would work in a human patient and find out what other viruses it could be used for.

The Health Protection Agency estimates that more than 80,000 people are now living with HIV in the UK, although around a third of these are thought to be undiagnosed.

High risk groups in the UK include gay and bisexual men and black Africans.

Worldwide, the number of people with HIV is thought to be 33 million.