Fighting Cancer with HIV

Fighting Cancer with HIV

New course of treatment could cure leukemia using modified autoimmune viruses


It sounds ridiculous: like something off of a MAD TV skit or a really dumb, low-budget medical paranoia movie. You can almost see that third-rate actor blurting out the lines even he's ashamed of: "Cure cancer with AIDS? But how?"

It sounds completely absurd, but that's exactly what doctors at the University of Pennsylvania did. They eliminated leukemia--as far as they can tell--from one man's system. And they did it using the HIV virus. 

The patient, William Ludwig, had been receiving chemotherapy treatment for his leukemia. As is the case with many cancer patients, the chemo eventually stopped working. It was wrecking his system without any noticeable results. He didn't have many options ahead of him; chemo-resistant leukemia tends to be a dead end. So he signed up for an experimental course of treatment at the university, figuring he had nothing much left to lose. If you had to choose between wasting away and becoming a guinea pig for new science that might just work, wouldn't you opt for the latter? 

It was a very experimental course, something that had never been tried before. The doctors proceeded to swap out his T-cells, removing a billion of them from Ludwig's body, genetically modifying them, and reintroducing them back into his system. They were trying to reprogram the disease-fighting white blood cells to fight the disease in Ludwig's blood. They weren't sure if they had succeeded; for 10 days, no change showed, and after that the patient worsened. He had to be moved to the ICU. He had a fever and low blood pressure and the doctors were afraid that they might have killed him with their experiment. 

But after spending weeks in intensive care, Ludwig recovered. The doctors screened him for cancer. It was gone. The weeks of system shock were just the external evidence of the newly modified T-cells kicking cancer's ass. They killed off two whole pounds of cancer. Ludwig now lives at home, cancer-free. He golfs again. 

The genetic modification of the T-cells uses a disabled form of the HIV virus to turn them on the cancer. Instead of attacking healthy cells, like AIDS is wont to do, the T-cells target only the cancerous ones. It worked for Ludwig and it might just work for people with all sorts of cancer--not just leukemia.

But so far, the treatment remains in the highly experimental stages. Only three patients have received the gene therapy and only two were complete successes. The third saw a reduction in cancer but was not cured of it. And until doctors are able to perform the procedure on more patients, we won't know if it works for sure.

Still--it seems as though scientists are well on their way to training our own bodies to kill the things that kill us. If the treatment proves to be widely successful for a variety of cancers, we might be seeing a lot more survivors in the world. It does still seem unlikely--and maybe a little poetic--that one terrible disease would ultimately negate another, but here's hoping it's true.