Study Finds Cancer Drug May Also Flush Out Dormant HIV

It pushes HIV out of hiding.
Loukia Papadopoulos
A mockup of an HIV vaccine.Diverse Stock Photos/Flickr

Although we are tremendously close to a vaccine for HIV, people living with the virus still need a cure.

Part of the reason HIV is so hard to cure is that it hides in a state of hibernation inside long-lived immune cells, inserting its genetic material into the cell's own, so it can successfully evade detection. This means that even when treatments are diligently followed the virus is never eradicated entirely but instead continues to be present in the patient within these latent reservoirs.

This could all come to an end, however, with the use of a drug called pembrolizumab, according to a press release by the Doherty Institute. Pembrolizumab is an immunotherapy drug often used in the treatment of melanoma and other cancers.

A small but important research group

A new small (32 patients) but powerful study has found that it might also be able to reverse HIV latency, essentially driving the virus out of hiding. Research on the drug, however, has been delayed as the scientists can only test it on people who are suffering both from cancer and HIV.

“It’s not straightforward to bring this approach to the clinic in people living with HIV without cancer,” explained  Professor Sharon Lewin – Director of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity (Doherty Institute),

“The side effects of immunotherapy currently are significant, for example, five to 10 percent of people will get an adverse event. In a cancer setting, this isn’t a major concern as you have a life-threatening illness, but in HIV, the situation is very different. People can now live normal and healthy lives with HIV, so any intervention for a cure must have very low toxicity.

“In this study, we were able to show that in a cohort of 32 people who have cancer who are also living with HIV, pembrolizumab was able to perturb the HIV reservoir, which is a very exciting result and involved many groups around the world.”

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Next steps

Now, Lewin and her team must investigate whether the drug can also boost the immune system enough to then attack and destroy HIV. The team must also evaluate whether the drug can be used safely on people who do not have cancer and only have HIV.

Lewin and her colleagues still have a long road ahead of them but the results of their work could potentially be revolutionary. Luckily, they are not the only ones working on a cure for HIV. GlaxoSmithKline, a British multinational pharmaceutical giant, is planning to begin human trials for an HIV cure as early as next summer.

Lewin's current study was published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

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