Boosting Immune Response Could Fight Cancer

An HIV therapy might also improve vaccination effectiveness, experts say

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FRIDAY, Sept. 23, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- HIV-related research may have paid off with an immune-boosting therapy that could improve cancer vaccines and help a range of patients, including the elderly, better ward off infection.

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minn., say they've found a means of boosting the output of disease-fighting immune cells by the thymus, a tiny organ located in the upper chest.

Reporting in the current issue of AIDS, the Mayo team studied immune system responses in health workers accidentally exposed to HIV. All of those exposed received a common anti-AIDS treatment called antiretroviral therapy (ART). None of the health workers went on to develop HIV infection.

However, the researchers also found that ART dramatically boosted (up to a factor of 1,000) thymus production of cells from which the immune system makes disease-fighting T-cells. This increase in production even occurred in older people, who tend to produce few new T-cells, the researchers note.

"The ability of ART to boost T-cell numbers may allow patients who normally don't respond to vaccines -- such as those with chronic disease, or the elderly -- to mount an effective immune response if they receive the vaccination in combination with ART," said co-researcher and Mayo Clinic immunologist Dr. Andrew Badley in a prepared statement.

Further research was conducted in mice to determine if ART might cause the immune system to mistakenly attack the host's body instead of disease-causing invaders, and the Mayo team found this was not the case.

Another potential application "is to use the ART treatment as a way to use tumor components to immunize cancer patients against their own cancer cells," immunologist Dr. David McKean said in a prepared statement.

"The current problem with this treatment strategy is that the tumor gives off a variety of soluble products which we don't fully understand, but which we know wreak havoc on the immune system by suppressing its various components," he said. "If we can use the ART drugs to increase the number of newly produced T-cells in cancer patients first, we can potentially improve the likelihood of getting a cancer vaccine to work."

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease has more about the immune system.

SOURCE: Mayo Clinic, news release, Sept 23, 2005

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