HIV and cancer are both devastating, deadly diseases, but a recent study suggests the two conditions may have more in common than their ability to destroy the human body. According to the study, a new type of immunotherapy treatment originally developed for cancer patients may also be useful in the fight against HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

For the study, which is now published online in the peer-reviewed Journal of Virology, researchers from UCLA AIDS Institute and Center for AIDS Research discovered that an antibody used to combat cancer may also be useful in killing cells infected with HIV-1. When manipulated, these antibodies can be used to generate a specific type of cell called chimeric antigen receptors (CARs), which are essentially artificially created immune cells that are currently at the center of immunotherapy research.

Immunotherapy is a very popular route for cancer treatment and involves using the body’s own immune system to fight off cancer. Although cancer does not inhibit immune system function, it is able to distinguish itself from immune system cells and destroy the body completely undisturbed. Chemotherapy and radiation have been the most popular routes for eliminating cancer from the body, and although both treatments often succeed in destroying cancer cells, they also destroy healthy cells along the way and have many devastating side effects.

Immunotherapy is a much less destructive way to eliminate cancer from the body. According to Cancer.org, immunotherapy usually involves either stimulating the immune system to work harder or smarter to attack cancer cells, or as in the case of CARS, it gives the immune system extra components, such as man-made immune system proteins, to better combat the cancer cells.

CARs are designed to produce receptors on their surface that target and kill specific cells containing either viruses or tumor proteins. For this study, however, the team realized that the immunotherapy treatment could not only destroy cancer cells, but also HIV-infected cells.

"We took new generation antibodies and engineered them as artificial T-cell receptors, to reprogram killer T cells to kill HIV-infected cells," said Dr. Otto Yang, the study's corresponding author, in a recent statement .

This is not the first time researchers have used artificial T-cell receptors to combat HIV, although past attempts have proved unsuccessful. However, the UCLA team believes that the discovery of new antibodies capable of creating CARS may be enough to turn the theory into a reality. However, Yang cautioned that what works in a test tube doesn’t always work in a person so, while the therapy shows promise enough to move forward with research, it may be too soon to declare a “breakthrough” in HIV treatment just yet.

This is not the only way immunotherapy is being developed to help address HIV. Normally HIV-positive patients take a number of drugs, known as antiretroviral, to help keep their HIV virus levels low and prevent them from developing AIDS. However, a study released just last month described using a specific antibody to help HIV-positive patients maintain low viral levels without the need for a daily antiretroviral regimen. Although, like the CARs treatment, this therapy is also still in development, these studies combined with other new innovations in HIV research suggest that we may finally be on our way to winning the battle against this devastating disease.

Source: Alli A, Kitchen SG, Chen ISY, Nh H, Zack JA, Yang OO. HIV-1-Specific Chimeric Antigen Receptors Based on Broadly Neutralizing Antibodies. Journal of Virology . 2016