About 1.2 million people with HIV in the United States live relatively normal lives with uncompromised immune systems and the virus medically controlled.

But there are two rising concerns, said Ge Jin, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Case Western Reserve University School of Dental Medicine.

“One, they are aging and will develop all the diseases or illnesses of the general population, like you or me,” he said. “The other problem—those morbidities, like cancer or co-infection with other viruses, happen at an earlier stage, occur at a higher rate and are more severe (for people with HIV).”

With two new research grants totaling $3.7 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Jin and his co-investigators hope to learn why.

The new grants will focus on identifying the reasons for higher rates of cancers in the head and neck within this population, as well as co-infection with the herpes virus (Kaposi sarcoma herpesvirus or KSHV). 

Jin, also a member of the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Molecular Oncology Program, received:

  • A five-year, $3.3 million grant from the National Cancer Institute at NIH to investigate the mechanisms underlying transmission of KSHV in the oral cavity in people living with HIV.

KSHV causes Kaposi sarcoma (KS), one of the most common malignancies in people living with HIV. While the oral cavity contains the highest levels of infectious KSHV—and saliva is the most common way to transmit the infection—how that happens isn’t understood.

Jonathan Karn, professor and chair of the Department of Molecular Biology and Microbiology at the School of Medicine and director of the Case Center for AIDS Research, is co-investigator on this project.

  • A related $401,000 grant from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research at NIH to study why cases of oral diseases, like lesions that could develop into oral cancers, are increasing as people with HIV age—and then identify new therapies. Michael Lederman, professor emeritus at the School of Medicine, is co-investigator.

This new round of funding builds on a $3.7 million grant Jin and his research team received from NCI in July 2020 to study HIV and lung cancer—specifically why lung cancer rates are higher for people living with HIV, and the mechanism and markers to predict and treat the disease.

HIV infects immune cells; cancers in the lung and oral cavity affect epithelial cells. If researchers can figure out the link between HIV and higher cancer rates—and how to break that connection—then the next step would be to focus on therapies to treat the diseases. 

“The first thing is,” Jin said, “identifying how and why they can talk with each other.”


For more information, contact Megan Hahn at megan.hahn@case.edu.

This article was originally published Jan. 27, 2022.