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People with HIV or AIDS are at a much higher risk of developing and dying from cancer — in fact, cancer is now the leading cause of death for people with HIV/AIDS.

But data from a national study of HIV/AIDS patients may have good news: It found that immunotherapies, a set of groundbreaking cancer treatments, are safe for those patients to use.

The finding is important because HIV/AIDS patients have been excluded from the early trials that test immunotherapy treatments, largely because the treatments use the body’s immune system to fight cancer. Because HIV/AIDS patients have a compromised immune system, researchers couldn’t be sure how they — and their anti-HIV treatments — would react.

National Cancer Institute researcher Thomas Uldrick was the study’s principal investigator. (NCI Photo)

“During the development of these drugs, people with HIV were routinely excluded from studies due to concerns that they would not tolerate these medications or perhaps not benefit from them because of their underlying HIV and associated immune dysfunction,” said Dr. Thomas Uldrick, the paper’s principal investigator, in a press release. “The most important first step was to show that this class of drug would be safe in cancer patients with HIV.”

The data is still early and from a small sample of people, but it points to the possibility of new, lifesaving treatments for those in desperate need. The study collected data from patients treated around the country and was conducted by the Cancer Immunotherapy Trials Network, based at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

The 17 patients in the study received Keytruda, an immunotherapy that uses a specially-designed antibody to prevent cancer from hiding from the body’s immune system. It’s well-known as the drug that saved the life of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

Fred Hutch researcher Dr. Martin “Mac” Cheever, head of the Cancer Immunotherapy Trials Network. (Fred Hutch Photo)

“These drugs are the backbone of cancer immunotherapy at present and have been shown to be effective in subsets of virtually every different kind of cancer,” senior author Dr. Mac Cheever said in a press release. Cheever is a Fred Hutch researcher who leads the Cancer Immunotherapy Trials Network and is senior author of the new study.

“For patients with HIV who are using effective antiretroviral therapy and have cancers for which these drugs are approved, there’s no reason not to consider these drugs as standard therapy,” he said.

Immunotherapies, including ones like Keytruda, have shown incredible promise for patients with advanced cancer that has resisted more traditional treatments.

CAR T cell therapies, including a treatment being developed by Seattle’s Juno Therapeutics, have show remission rates as high as 75 and 80 percent for those patients. However, there are still serious questions and challenges to developing immunotherapies, and particularly CAR T therapies. They include possibly life-threatening side effects, the tough task of making therapies for every form of cancer and understanding why some patients just don’t respond to treatment at all.

The patients in this study did not receive CAR T immunotherapies.

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