Powerful new weapon in treating cancer: HIV virus

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SALT LAKE CITY -- There could be a surprising new weapon in the fight against cancer. Initial tests show the HIV virus can drastically minimize, and even help cure, the most common form of leukemia.

Doctors presented their promising findings this week at a meeting of the American Society of Hematology. The news that a disabled form of the HIV virus can fight cancer is certainly exciting for doctors here, but there's a lot of work to do with this novel treatment.

Dr. Michael Boyer heads up the transplant program at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. He's checking in with lymphoma patient Kevin Williams, whose cancer is in remission after a stem cell transplant and five months of chemotherapy.

"I think the future is pretty bright," said Williams.

Both are encouraged by news of the HIV cell therapy.

"I think research on all fronts of cancer are making good progress," said Williams.

Dr. Boyer says it opens a new door for targeting cancer cells.

Any time you have a completely new therapy that has a 50-percent complete response rate in patients who have failed every other type of therapy, that's the home run,

–Dr. Michael Boyer

"Any time you have a completely new therapy that has a 50-percent complete response rate in patients who have failed every other type of therapy, that's the home run," said Boyer.

Seven-year-old leukemia patient Emily Whitehead is now in remission. A research team from the University of Pennsylvania removed immune cells - called T-cells -- from Emily.

They modified them with a disabled form of HIV to fight the cancer.

Once injected, the new cells multiplied and formed a cancer-targeting army. Those modified cells killed all of Emily's cancer cells, and did the same for one other patient.

They killed 70 percent in a third patient.

"That's the kind of targeted therapy that all cancer doctors have dreamed about for decades," said Boyer.

Those modified cells remain in the body and even kill new cancer cells.

"But it's telling us that these immune cells from the patient's own body can be targeted to kill their own cancer," Boyer said.

The HIV treatment is a single injection without the complications of chemotherapy, transplants and medication.

"If this can be applied to multiple cancers, certainly it opens up a whole new avenue of therapy for many patients," said Boyer.

If the same results seen in these patients can be duplicated across hundreds of patients, it could signal a big step in treating leukemia and potentially other forms of cancer - ultimately saving hundreds of thousands of lives.


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Jed Boal


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