Research has found that those living with HIV have a higher risk for certain kinds of cancers—such as lung cancer. Now, with a new five-year, $3.7 million grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), researchers from Case Western Reserve University hope to find out why.
Ge Jin, professor at the School of Dental Medicine and co-principal investigator on the research team, called the phenomenon “a mystery.”
There are more than an estimated 1.7 million people newly infected with HIV every year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That’s 1.7 million people who are more likely to get cancer—and get it at an earlier age and at a higher frequency—than 1.7 million people who do not have HIV, Jin said.
“We want to look at the molecular events involved in these processes, and find out why,” he said. “We need to find a better way to detect cancer in these patients at an earlier stage.”
Jin is partnering with co-principal investigator Bingcheng Wang, the John A. and Josephine B. Wootton Endowed Chair of Research and Professor at the School of Medicine, who’s also a researcher at MetroHealth System. They found that the immune cells from HIV patients secrete exosomes—think tiny nanoparticles—and attack lung cells, thus promoting the growth of cancer.
Wang said he believes that grant from NCI will “further investigate this novel mechanism of lung cancer promotion by HIV and develop new therapeutic agents to treat the disease among people living with HIV.”
HIV patients with lung cancer have a worse prognosis than those in the general population, multiple studies have shown. Previous research has shown certain remedies can neutralize the effects of the exosomes, also known as vesicles.
However, the causes for increased lung cancer among people living with HIV remain elusive.
The prevailing belief has been that those with HIV have weakened immune systems, but it’s not that simple, Jin said.
“If you’re living with HIV, the virus is arrested—it’s kept at bay,” he said. “That’s why the disease doesn’t manifest itself to become AIDS. It’s why those with HIV can live normal, healthy lives. There’s something else going on at the cellular level.”
Jin said the new research will further explore potential causes—and remedies. He called his laboratory at the School of Dental Medicine “a pioneer” in the field of identifying exosomes in the blood of HIV patients promoting the growth of oral cancer cells.
“This is a very exciting project, as our investigation will help understand how lung cancer progresses in people living with HIV, which will potentially assist clinicians to assess risk factors of cancers and better treatment in the population,” he said.