HIV drug could treat cervical cancer, new study shows

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  • More than 85 per cent of cervical cancer cases are in developing countries
  • A trial in Kenya cured 90 per cent of those having the disease with an HIV drug
  • The findings of the trial could help control the disease globally, says an expert

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A commonly used oral, combination HIV drug — lopinavir and ritonavir — could be taken as a vaginal capsule to kill the virus that leads to cervical cancer in women, according to a phase I clinical trial in Kenya.

The findings of the new study were released this month (5 March) at a press conference in Nairobi, Kenya.

According to researchers from the Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) in Nairobi, Kenya and the UK-based University of Manchester, who undertook the study, the combination drug lopinavir and ritonavir offer hope to many women — especially from low-resource countries — who die of cervical cancer, a disease caused by human papillomavirus.

“We hope that this treatment has great potential to change cancer management in developing countries like Kenya.”

Innocent Maranga, Kenyatta National Hospital, Kenya

Globally, there were 528,000 new cases of cervical cancer globally in 2012, causing 266,000 deaths, 85 per cent of which occurred in developing countries, according to estimates of GLOBOCAN, a project that tracks new cases of all types of cancer and the resulting deaths in 184 countries.

The early stage clinical trial carried out by Innocent Maranga, a gynaecologist at KNH and the UK-based researchers found out that the drug wiped out pre-cancerous cells in 90 per cent of trial participants with minimal side effects.

Maranga tells SciDev.Net that the trial screened 820 women at the hospital and finally settled on 40 patients who had early stage cervical cancer.

He says the women who took part in the study, which is yet to be published in a journal, were given one capsule of a combination drug, which has 133.3 milligrams lopinavir and 33.3 milligrams ritonavir, daily for two weeks in 2012.

“We then repeated cervical smears which showed a marked improvement within one month of the treatment. After three months, there was a very positive response,” says Maranga.

The drug is ordinarily taken by mouth to treat HIV, but Maranga explains, their study required the trial participants to use it as a vaginal capsule.

“We hope that this treatment has great potential to change cancer management in developing countries like Kenya,” he says.

Maranga discloses that they will now move on to phase two and three trials, which could require up to 5,000 women.

“If all goes well in these proposed trials, we should have a product in the market in about seven years’ time, he adds.

Lily Koros Tare, KNH chief executive officer, says the findings could help save millions of women who die of cervical cancer all over the world.

“The message today is not just about mourning and despair; we stand surrounded by heroes who have identified a solution for cervical cancer,” she notes.

According to Alice Ndong’, a general practitioner with interest in gynaecology and nutrition, who works at Xenihealth Clinic, Kenya, says earlier laboratory studies had shown the drug to kill HPV, but this was the first time human trial has been carried out.

“This is a right move towards eliminating cervical cancer in women around the globe,” says Ndong'.

She is calling on women to routinely go for cervical cancer check-ups to avoid late stage diagnoses so that those with the disease can be treated early.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.