Cancer Drug Exposes Hidden HIV

By Amir Khan on July 26, 2012 8:54 AM EDT

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A drug for a rare type of cancer may be the newest weapon in the fight against HIV, according to a new study, published in the journal Nature. The findings are a tentative step towards fully eradicating the virus from the body, researchers said. (Photo: Creative Commons: melloveschal)

A drug for a rare type of cancer may be the newest weapon in the fight against HIV, according to a new study, published in the journal Nature.  The findings are a tentative step towards fully eradicating the virus from the body, researchers said.

HIV can hide in cells and reactivate decades later, making it near-impossible to fully eliminate it from the body. The cancer drug vorinostat, used to treat lymphoma, exposed the virus, which enables doctors to target the HIV more efficiently.

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"It is the beginning of work toward a cure for AIDS," David Margolis, co-author of the study and researcher at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, said, according to the Agence France-Presse. "After a single dose of the drug, at least for a moment in time, (vorinostat) is flushing the virus out of hiding."

He also said the findings could be the beginning of an entire new focus in the fight against HIV.

"This is proof of the concept, of the idea that the virus can be specifically targeted in a patient by a drug, and essentially opens up the way for this class of drugs to be studied for use in this way," he said.

HIV causes a failure of the immune system. Some people develop flulike symptoms within a few weeks of being infected, but most infected people show no symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 1 million Americans live with HIV, and about 25 percent of them are unaware of their HIV status, according to the CDC.

No cure for HIV is known, but treatments include drug cocktails that inhibit formation of new HIV particles. If treatment begins early, life expectancy is 32 years, according to a 2006 study published in Med Care. Life expectancy shrinks as treatment is delayed.

Risk factors for HIV include having sex with multiple partners, having sex without a condom, and having sex with men who have sex with men, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infection Diseases

Margolis stressed that while the findings are promising, results are still a long way off.

"There is a possibility that this could work," he said. "But if it is only 99 percent true and one percent of the virus escapes, it won't succeed. That is why we have to be careful about our work and what we claim about it."

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