While nowhere near the devastating illness it was in the 1970’s and 80’s, at least in so far as the western world is concerned, HIV remains a serious concern on the global scale. With nearly 40 million people living with the disease worldwide, doctors are yet to find a cure for the virus. Current drugs are capable of keeping the majority of its symptoms at bay, but to date there is no ultimate solution for ridding patients of the virus. However, French doctors may have discovered a possible new weapon in the form of a breakthrough therapy already used to treat cancer.
Opdivo, sometimes branded under the name Nivolumab, is a so-called “checkpoint inhibitor” used to treat certain forms of cancer. Checkpoint inhibitors work by enabling the immune system to recognize cancer cells as threats so that they can destroy them. Cancer tumors can sometimes hide beneath layers of protein cells, effectively camouflaging them from the immune system. Opdivo removes this layer of protection, enabling the body to deal with the dangerous cells. HIV can mirror this process, burrowing deep into the body and making the search for a true cure exceedingly difficult.
Recently, a 51 year old French patient who had both lung cancer and HIV was prescribed Nivolumab in an effort to rid his body of the former condition when his first round of therapies failed. Throughout the course of his treatment, his doctors were surprised to find that the levels of the HIV virus in his blood rose. While this sounds negative, it may have revealed an important, previously unknown mechanism of Nivolumab. The rising levels of the HIV virus, according to a recent paper published in Annals of Oncology indicates that the virus may have been unmasked by the drug in much the same way it does to cancerous tumors.
While this is a profound discovery, experts are emphasising caution, as the amount of study into patients with both HIV and cancer is somewhat limited. Currently, roughly 50 patients with both conditions have been treated via immunotherapy, but some of these cases did not present with the same result as the French patient examined in the paper. Cardiff University’s Dr. Andrew Freedman, a specialist in infectious disease, said the different responses may ultimately be chalked up to genetic differences between patients. The National Cancer Institute is currently studying the potential use of the drug for fighting HIV and should release its results by 2020.