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The Broad Benefits of AIDS Research

Many New Treatments for Diseases Such as Cancer, Hepatitis, and Heart Disease Have Arisen From Research on HIV/AIDS

September 20, 2018

Since the beginning of the epidemic, AIDS research has been a testing ground for new concepts and technologies in drug development, diagnostics, and disease prevention. Drugs developed to combat HIV and to treat AIDS have helped improve and prolong the lives of countless people worldwide.

But discoveries made in one area of research often benefit the study and treatment of a wide variety of human diseases. The fact is that many new treatments for diseases such as cancer, hepatitis, heart disease, and osteoporosis have arisen from research aimed at preventing, diagnosing, and treating HIV/AIDS. This research has also provided insights into new ways of treating autoimmune diseases and severe vision loss.

"An anti-cancer gene could only be delivered to her cells using disabled HIV as a carrier."


Are there serious diseases unrelated to HIV that have been put into remission or even cured as a direct result of AIDS research?

Absolutely, and some recent examples have been very dramatic. In 2012, a young girl with acute leukemia wasn't responding to conventional treatments and was on the brink of death. But then she was given an experimental treatment using an anti-cancer gene that could only be delivered to her cells using disabled HIV as a carrier. Within weeks she was in remission and she remains cancer-free. In 2014, a Utah man with the same type of aggressive leukemia received a similar treatment using disabled HIV and he, too, is now cancer-free. Additionally, six HIV-negative children with usually fatal genetic immune disorders (Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome, severe combined immuno-deficiency, and chronic granulomatous disease) were cured using similar targeted gene therapies, all of which employed inactivated HIV.


Have drugs specifically developed to treat HIV been used in the treatment of other infections or diseases?

Yes. HIV/AIDS therapies are critical in the treatment of other diseases. For example, three drugs developed to treat HIV -- lamivudine, tenofovir, and entecavir -- are now the mainstays of therapy for hepatitis B virus (HBV) infections. Another antiviral drug called adefovir, which failed as an HIV treatment, was found to suppress HBV at much lower dosages and has been approved for the treatment of chronic HBV disease. Most recently, a drug called sofosbuvir that is modeled on HIV reverse transcriptase inhibitors, one of the main classes of anti-HIV drugs, is being used to treat and cure hepatitis C.

"The small arteries of a two-year-old child with AIDS often resemble those of a 50-year-old man."


Are other treatments for major diseases such as Alzheimer's or heart disease likely to emerge from AIDS research any time soon?

The characteristic plaques that fill the brain cells of an Alzheimer's patient are formed partly by enzymes called proteases, so scientists are now investigating the use of protease inhibitors -- first developed to treat HIV/AIDS -- to treat this debilitating dementia.

HIV-positive children and adults, both on and off certain anti-HIV medications, can suffer heart attacks and strokes because HIV appears to affect small blood vessels in the heart and the brain, which makes these patients vulnerable to spasm, blood clots, and early atherosclerosis (buildup of fats, cholesterol, and other substances in the arteries). The small arteries of a two-year-old child with AIDS often resemble those of a 50-year-old man.

And in HIV infection, a process of programmed cell death injures the cells that line the small blood vessels of the heart. Inflammation appears to play a significant role in this process, as it does in non-HIV-infected individuals. Methods of controlling inflammation and detecting it early should limit these damaging processes in all affected individuals.

Experimental treatments for several types of cancer have grown directly out of AIDS research.


How is AIDS research helping people with cancer?

Experimental treatments for several types of cancer have grown directly out of AIDS research. Treating HIV involves blocking key receptors -- proteins used by the virus to enter immune cells. One of these receptors, CXCR4, appears to be an important target in treating lung cancer. Researchers are now studying drugs originally designed to block CXCR4 in HIV patients to determine whether they might be used to fight this common form of cancer.

Several natural body hormones called growth factors promote the activity of HIV. Many of these hormones also accelerate the growth and spread of cancer cells. Blocking the activity of these hormones is a strategy first used experimentally to treat Kaposi's sarcoma, a cancer found in patients with HIV/AIDS. Now it is also being tested in bladder, vulvar, and breast cancers, and has shown some exciting recent success in treating colon cancer.

In addition, small proteins and drugs that can block the growth of new blood vessels (which is critical to the survival of tumor cells) were originally developed to treat Kaposi's sarcoma, but are now being tested in many other cancers as well. Finally, the protease inhibitor lopinavir, first developed to treat HIV, has been shown to be effective in attacking human papillomavirus, which can cause cervical cancer.

The profound immune suppression necessary for a bone marrow transplant to treat leukemia and other cancers often leads to devastating, even fatal, infections such as cytomegalovirus and Pneumocystis pneumonia, which also affect people with AIDS. New drugs to treat and prevent these infections in cancer patients have come directly from AIDS-targeted research.

A new class of anti-HIV drug that blocks a protein known as CCR5 ... is also being evaluated in inflammatory bowel disease and other autoimmune disorders.


Since HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system, what does AIDS research teach us about autoimmune disorders or immune-based therapies for other diseases?

HIV-positive people may develop autoimmune problems, such as psoriasis or blood abnormalities associated with lupus. For these autoimmune diseases, treatments developed for HIV/AIDS should also apply when the same conditions occur spontaneously. A new class of anti-HIV drug that blocks a protein known as CCR5, the key co-receptor for HIV's entry into cells, is also being evaluated in inflammatory bowel disease and other autoimmune disorders.

Certain hormones that modify the function of immune cells are now being tested as treatments for HIV. Some of the most recent include IL-12 and TNF (tumor necrosis factor)-alpha inhibitors, which may also boost the immune systems of cancer patients. In those patients, the hormones help destroy the residue of cancer after surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy. The TNF-alpha inhibitors may also be useful in combating the body wasting that accompanies AIDS and some forms of cancer.

New PCR tests, developed for diagnosing HIV, are now routinely used to rapidly detect a number of other infectious diseases.


Tests for HIV and other infections associated with AIDS have become very sophisticated. Can these procedures help improve the diagnosis of other diseases?

One particle of HIV genetic material can be located among millions of other particles by using extraordinarily sensitive techniques known as PCR (polymerase chain reaction) and RT-PCR (reverse transcription PCR). New PCR tests, developed for diagnosing HIV, are now routinely used to rapidly detect a number of other infectious diseases, including hepatitis C, tuberculosis, chlamydia, influenza, Lyme disease, and many fungal infections. These techniques have also made it possible to measure otherwise undetectable levels of cancer cells in people who appear to have been cured. This detection allows doctors to initiate new therapy or to continue ongoing treatments that might otherwise have been discontinued. In addition, the discovery of HHV-8, a herpes virus linked to Kaposi's sarcoma, was made possible by a new application of PCR. This technique is now being used worldwide to seek possible infectious causes for diseases of unknown origins.


In which other ways is amfAR's work helping people with illnesses other than AIDS?

Advocacy efforts by amfAR and other organizations were instru-mental in getting the Food and Drug Administration to institute fast-track procedures to speed the review of new treatments for all life-threatening diseases. Fast-tracking has already been applied in the approval of treatments for conditions such as Alzheimer's, AIDS, and cancer.

In summary, AIDS research is providing insights into a range of diseases, their causes, and their treatment. Better diagnostic methods, therapies to restore the immune system, newer preventive antibiotics and drugs, and new treatments for infectious diseases and cancer -- all developed in the course of AIDS research -- are improving and prolonging countless lives every day.

[Note from TheBody: This article was originally published by amfAR on Sept. 18, 2018. We have cross-posted it with their permission.]


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This article was provided by amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research. Visit amfAR's website to find out more about their activities and publications.
 


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