Researchers discuss possibility of HIV, cancer vaccine

Treatment Action Campaign activists protest during the official opening of the 21st International AIDS conference at the International Convention Centre in Durban on July 18, 2016. Experts say that tackling the disease has been a great challenge. PHOTO | RAJESH JANTILAL | AFP

What you need to know:

  • Prof Lewin said the potential of emerging synergies in HIV and cancer therapies was generating interest.
  • The research would focus on the interface and similarities between HIV cure and cancer research.


HIV/Aids cure and cancer experts have for the first time come together in a bid to develop a universal vaccine.

The experts said the two diseases are the greatest scientific research challenges of the time.


Prof Sharon Lewin, International Aids Society HIV Cure and Cancer Forum co-chair, said the potential of emerging synergies in HIV and cancer therapies was generating new excitement and interest in both fields.

“The availability of several recent advances in cancer treatment for people living with HIV provides opportunities to understand whether these treatments can help eliminate the virus, in addition to the cancer," she said.

Prof Lewin, who is also an infectious diseases physician and inaugural director of the Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity at the University of Melbourne, said that gene therapy approaches being used to treat cancer are also being studied to see whether they can help make cells resistant to HIV.

She said in recent years, HIV cure research has expanded from efforts to eradicate or suppress HIV through the early use of anti-retroviral therapy (ART) to include research on the use of immune-boosting strategies, some based on cancer treatment models.

This, Prof Lewin said, suppresses viral replication to the point where an HIV-infected person could discontinue ART and remain healthy.

She said the research would focus on the interface and similarities between HIV cure and cancer research, on cancer research approaches that may offer promise in controlling HIV infection and on strategies to strengthen alliances between the two fields.

“The parallels between HIV persistence and cancer are striking.


"In both cases, the immune response is unable to target and clear HIV-infected cells and tumour cells.

"Both fields also face similar challenges in quantifying the size and distribution of those cells, which can reside in tissues that are difficult to access," Nobel Laureate Françoise Barré-Sinoussi said.

According to Prof Barré-Sinoussi, if the science around research on early treatment and HIV cure is demonstrating that viral suppression while off treatment over the long term is the exception to the rule, it is also clear that it has also some researchers to entertain a school of thought that the main game might be headed towards boosting immunity.

“The idea is that we can get people into remission while off antiretroviral drugs but with HIV still present in the body. This is where the link with cancer comes in," she said.

International Aids Society President Linda-Gail Bekker said efforts are under way to determine if cancer therapies could be used to build up the immune system of patients with HIV in such a way that they too can achieve a durable and perhaps lifelong treatment-free state of remission.


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