HIV drugs may stop cervical disease

A drug combination commonly given to people with HIV, the AIDS virus, can knock out precancerous growths on a woman’s cervix, a new study indicates.

Previous research had suggested that HIV-positive women are particularly susceptible to such growths, called squamous intraepithelial lesions. The condition is detectable by a Pap test and typically appears in women between the ages of 25 and 35. Untreated, the lesions progress to cervical cancer in a small percentage of women. Lesion-laden tissue can be removed surgically or killed by freezing or heating, but these procedures don’t necessarily free the cervix of all abnormal cells.

Stephen J. Gange, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in Baltimore, and his colleagues monitored 312 HIV-positive women who had the lesions but hadn’t undergone a procedure to remove them. If a woman underwent such a procedure, she was no longer monitored as part of the study. Over 7 years, the scientists noted whenever one of the women began taking a cocktail of potent anti-HIV drugs.

Before the HIV treatment, none of the women had fought off her squamous intraepithelial lesions on her own, as healthy women sometimes do. In contrast, the lesions disappeared in 13 percent of women after they started taking the anti-HIV drugs, the researchers report in the July 21 Journal of the National Cancer Institute. A woman was considered free of lesions if two consecutive Pap tests 6 months apart revealed no abnormal cell growth.

Why the anti-HIV therapy didn’t erase cervical lesions in more women isn’t clear, says Gange. The scientists suspect that the drug treatment promotes lesion healing by boosting a woman’s immunity. Gange notes that the more that HIV had weakened a woman’s immune system, the less likely she was to knock out the lesions, even with the drugs.

Gange and his team collected the data as part of a nationwide project called the Women’s Interagency HIV Study.

More Stories from Science News on Health & Medicine