HIV & Cancer

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

How in the world does a virus lead to cancer? Is that even possible? This lesson explains how a very famous viral infection, HIV, is linked to a potentially fatal cancer.

A Deadly Virus and Cancer

Would you rather have a deadly virus or a deadly cancer? Neither, I presume. And, truly, hopefully neither will ever affect you or anyone you know. But imagine having both at the same exact time. Yep, some unfortunate individuals can have both simultaneously. In fact, one leads to the other. How does this happen? Find out as we discuss HIV and cancer.

What are HIV & Cancer?

HIV stands for the human immunodeficiency virus. This is the virus that leads to the famous condition of AIDS, acquired immune deficiency syndrome. HIV ends up destroying white blood cells in our body, namely T cells. White blood cells are the knights in shining armor (on a white horse) that protect you from diseases caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. Since HIV kills your knights, your body is left defenseless and open to invasion by all sorts of potentially deadly organisms. If a lot of these guys have been killed off by HIV, then AIDS, an advanced stage of HIV infection, occurs.

HIV (green) budding from a white blood cell (blue).

Cancer, also called malignant neoplasia, refers to the abnormal growth, invasion, and spread of once normal cells. These are the traitors of your body. They used to be normal citizens (cells) of your body but have decided to attack and ravage your body instead.

How are HIV & Cancer Related?

So how are these two seemingly very different problems related? One is caused by a foreign invader, a virus, and the other is caused by our own body's rogue cells. It's well known that HIV/AIDS can lead to a specific form of connective tissue tumor called Kaposi sarcoma (KS). This cancer causes pink, purple-red to brown tumors to appear on the skin or on in places like a person's mouth. However, it can also be found in other places around the body, like the bones. This cancer can be fatal.

This image shows Kaposi sarcoma inside the mouth of an HIV positive patient.
Kaposi sarcoma

People who have advanced HIV infections (AIDS) are at greatest risk of this cancer. That's because advanced stages of HIV infection are directly responsible for greater immune system suppression. This means the body is more susceptible to being infected with other agents, as mentioned before. One of these infectious agents is known as the human herpesvirus 8 (HHV-8), also called the Kaposi sarcoma human herpes virus (KSHV), which is transmitted via saliva.

While someone who has KSHV alone may get Kaposi sarcoma, those who have KSHV and HIV at the same time are far more likely to develop Kaposi sarcoma or a more aggressive form of it. Since KSHV DNA has been found in samples of Kaposi sarcoma, it is believed that this virus plays an important role in forcing our cells to go rogue. Think of this real-life virus as a computer virus that re-programs the computer to do what it normally shouldn't. Except here, the virus somehow leads to the re-programming of our normal cells to become cancer cells. Since HIV has killed off the computer's anti-virus program, the white blood cells, this may be why people with HIV are more susceptible to more aggressive forms of KS.

However, some people are infected with KSHV first and get HIV later and only thereafter develop KS. Thus, it may be that HIV/AIDS is somehow a co-factor, alongside KSHV, in leading to this cancer. In any case, the entire interaction between the two viruses and the cancer itself is not fully understood and it is believed that environmental factors, genetics, and immune system molecules may also play a role in the development of KS in people with HIV.

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