Fighting Cancer with…HIV?

A new research and licensing partnership between the University of Pennsylvania and Novartis aims to develop more effective treatments for cancer by giving patients a disabled form of HIV.

A new research and licensing partnership between the University of Pennsylvania and Novartis aims to develop more effective treatments for cancer by giving patients a disabled form of HIV.

A novel treatment to fight cancer that is currently being developed by scientists at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) in collaboration with Novartis relies on the mechanisms of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV-1) to carry cancer-fighting genes into a patient’s T-cells.

Penn has agreed to develop new modified T-cell treatments for cancer and grant Novartis an exclusive worldwide license to the technologies, The New York Times reports. Penn will receive royalty payments for their discoveries, as well as a commitment from Novartis to contribute $20 million to the University’s Center for Advanced Cellular Therapies.

The treatment will exploit HIV-1’s retroviral function by using the virus as a vector to deliver cancer-fighting genetic information into the DNA of the cancer patients’ host cells. In other words, the treatment method will use the infective properties of deactivated HIV to incorporate anticancer DNA into the cells of the patient. The hope is that this DNA, once incorporated back into the patient’s genome, will train the patient’s immune system to recognize and kill cancer cells.

In order to incorporate the new genetic material into the host cells of the cancer patient, researchers extract some of the patient’s T-cells. They expose the cells to a modified strain of HIV-1, and the virus containing the anticancer genes invades the T-cells. The reprogrammed T-cells are then reintroduced into the patient’s body and are allowed to replicate. As a result, these cells have a memory of the immunity.

The cancer immunotherapies being developed by Penn were tested last year on patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Several patients showed significant disease improvement, with 2 of the patients going into complete remission. Future trials utilizing this method of gene therapy will focus on the treatment of lymphoma, mesothelioma, myeloma, and neuroblastoma.

Although purposely exposing a person to HIV-1 may sound controversial, the researchers at Penn note that the virus is “gutted;” it is modified so much that the virus has the ability to infect cells but cannot reproduce itself.

"Our early results in patients treated with chimeric antigen receptors represent two decades of investment and perseverance in our effort to treat cancer in an entirely new way, combining a highly targeted cell-based therapy with the might of a patient's own immune system," said the study's leader, Carl June, MD, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine and director of translational research at Penn's Abramson Cancer Center, in a press release. "By joining forces with Novartis, we will now have the resources and space to expand our research in new directions that we hope will change the way cancers of all kinds are treated."