While people infected with HIV are living longer due to better therapies, their weakened immune systems are linked to what is now a leading cause of death in the HIV population: cancer.

With a two-year, $500,000 grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), UW Carbone Cancer Center surgeon Evie Carchman, MD, and colleagues will study ways to reduce cancer incidence – specifically anal cancer – associated with HIV infection.

“Anal dysplasia is the precursor lesion to anal cancer, and anal cancers are increasing health problems in immunosuppressed patients,” Carchman said. “My lab looks at preventing and treating anal cancers, and that starts with preventing and treating anal dysplasia.”

With the funding, Carchman will conduct a study in a mouse model of anal cancer. UW Carbone member Paul Lambert, PhD, director of the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research, has developed a model where mice that express the human papillomavirus (HPV) cancer-causing genes in their skin go on to develop anal dysplasia and anal cancer as humans do.

“These mice develop anal dysplasia in the same way humans do,” Carchman said. “We’re using this model to see if we can prevent anal dysplasia and the progression to cancer.”

In the study, Carchman and her research group will apply a topical therapy – essentially, a cream – that works by inhibiting signaling pathways commonly overactive in anal dysplasia and cancers. Then, they will compare rates or degrees of anal dysplasia and cancer formation in mice that did or did not receive the therapy.

“We’re looking at a topical therapy because it’s more likely that the patient will use it, and because HIV/AIDS patients are already taking so many medications, it’s important to have a treatment that won’t interfere with them,” Carchman said.

In addition to the mouse study, Carchman is applying for funding to conduct a similar clinical trial in humans at risk for developing anal cancers.

The funding for this current mouse study was offered only to NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers, of which UW Carbone is the only such center in Wisconsin. NCI sought research proposals that would address cancer treatment and prevention in cancers both associated with HIV/AIDS and with the general population.