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Cancer Immunotherapy Might Help Find HIV Treatment

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The leaps in treating cancer by boosting the immune system may help find a cure for HIV, scientists meeting in Paris say.

The body’s normal immune system struggles to clear the body of HIV and cancer, but progress in the emerging field of immunotherapy has allowed some patients with severe forms of cancer to go into complete remission, the BBC reports.

Scientists hope that a similar approach could be used to combat HIV, although others have expressed the need for caution. Treating HIV requires daily antiretroviral drugs to kill the virus. If left alone, the virus will destroy the immune system, leading to Aids.

There is no cure for HIV, as neither drugs nor the immune system can detect the sleeping or “latent” HIV hiding in the body’s cells. Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, the scientist who co-discovered HIV and won the Nobel Prize, said,

One of the mechanisms why [latently infected cells] persist is the fact they are proliferating very similar to tumor cells.

Sinoussi said, “Those cells are expressing molecules that are the same molecules that are expressed on tumor cells. So that raises the question whether we could develop a strategy for HIV-cure similar to the novel treatment in the field of cancer.” Sinoussi is one of the scientists joining the HIV and Cancer Cure Forum in Paris.

Sharon Lewin, director of the Doherty Institute in Australia, says there is indeed much to learn from the progress being made in cancer research, “There are a lot of parallels…I think it’s huge.”

Only around 50 people with HIV have been given immunotherapy as a treatment for their cancer, meaning there is little evidence on how immunotherapy drugs affect HIV.

Lewin started doing research in the laboratory, and thinks there is a chance immunotherapy drugs could revive an immune system that has grown weary of fighting HIV. She said, “The parts of the immune system that recognize HIV are often exhausted T-cells, they express immune checkpoint markers. In the laboratory, if you then put those cells in with an immune checkpoint blocker, the T-cells do regain function.”

The drugs might also activate HIV that are dormant in immune cells, she said. “We want the virus to wake up, any virus that wakes up gets killed [by antiretroviral drugs].” However, much more research is needed to deliver positive results.

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