Skip to Content
Home > Wellness Resources > Health Library > Kaposi Sarcoma Treatment (PDQ®): Treatment - Health Professional Information [NCI]
This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http://cancer.gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.
Kaposi sarcoma (KS) was first described in 1872 by the Hungarian dermatologist, Moritz Kaposi. From that time until the current human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) disease epidemic identified with the Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), KS remained a rare tumor. While most of the cases seen in Europe and North America have occurred in elderly men of Italian or Eastern European Jewish ancestry, the neoplasm also occurs in several other distinct populations: young black African adult males, prepubescent children, renal allograft recipients, and other patients receiving immunosuppressive therapy. The disseminated, fulminant form of KS associated with HIV disease is referred to as epidemic KS to distinguish it from the classic, African, and transplant-related varieties of the neoplasm. In addition, KS has been identified in homosexual men apart from the HIV disease epidemic.
Although the histopathology of the different types of the Kaposi tumor is essentially identical in all of these groups, the clinical manifestations and course of the disease differ dramatically. A key piece to the puzzle of KS pathogenesis was the 1994 discovery of a gamma herpes virus, human herpes virus type 8 (HHV-8), also known as Kaposi sarcoma herpes virus. HHV-8 was identified in KS tissue biopsies from virtually all patients with classic, African, transplant-related, and AIDS-associated KS but was absent from noninvolved tissue.[4,5,6,7]
Classic Kaposi Sarcoma
Considered a rare disease, classic KS occurs more often in males, with a ratio of approximately 10 to 15 males to 1 female. In North Americans and Europeans, the usual age at onset is between 50 and 70 years. Classic KS tumors usually present with one or more asymptomatic red, purple, or brown patches, plaques, or nodular skin lesions. The disease is often limited to single or multiple lesions usually localized to one or both lower extremities, especially involving the ankles and soles.
Classic KS most commonly runs a relatively benign, indolent course for 10 to 15 years or more, with slow enlargement of the original tumors and the gradual development of additional lesions. Venous stasis and lymphedema of the involved lower extremity are frequent complications. In long-standing cases, systemic lesions can develop along the gastrointestinal tract, in lymph nodes, and in other organs. The visceral lesions are generally asymptomatic and are most often discovered only at autopsy, though clinically, gastrointestinal bleeding can occur. As many as 33% of the patients with classic KS develop a second primary malignancy, which is most often non-Hodgkin lymphoma.[8,9,10]
African Kaposi Sarcoma
In the 1950s, KS was recognized as a relatively common neoplasm endemic in native populations in equatorial Africa and comprised approximately 9% of all cancers seen in Ugandan males. African KS is seen as either an indolent neoplasm identical to the classic disease seen in Europe and North America or as an aggressive disease with fungating and exophytic tumors that may invade the subcutaneous and surrounding tissue including the underlying bone. In Africa, both the indolent and locally more aggressive forms of KS occur with a male-to-female ratio comparable to that observed with the classic KS tumor seen in North America and Europe. In general, however, patients in Africa are significantly younger than their European counterparts. A lymphadenopathic form of KS is also seen in Africa, primarily in prepubescent children (male:female ratio 3:1). In these cases, the generalized lymphadenopathy is frequently associated with visceral organ involvement. The prognosis is very poor with a 100% fatality rate within 3 years.[11,12]
Immunosuppressive Treatment–Related Kaposi Sarcoma
In 1969, the first case of KS in association with immunosuppression in a renal transplant patient was described. Since that time, a number of renal and other organ allograft recipients who received prednisone and azathioprine developed KS shortly after the onset of immunosuppressive therapy. Estimates of the incidence of KS in immunosuppressed renal transplant recipients are between 150 and 200 times the expected incidence of the tumor in the general population. The average time to develop KS after transplantation is 16 months. Although the KS tumor in iatrogenically immunosuppressed patients often remains localized to the skin, widespread dissemination with mucocutaneous or visceral organ involvement is common. In some cases, the KS tumors have regressed as a result of reduction or changes in immunosuppressive therapy. Clinical management of renal transplant patients who develop KS is difficult and requires a balance between the risk of death from generalized KS and the risk of graft rejection and complications of renal failure that may occur if the immunosuppressive therapy is discontinued.
Epidemic Kaposi Sarcoma
In 1981, a fulminant and disseminated form of KS in young homosexual or bisexual men was first reported as part of an epidemic now known as AIDS. The etiology of AIDS is a T-cell lymphotropic retrovirus known as HIV. The underlying immunologic deficiency that characterizes HIV disease is an acquired profound disorder of cell-mediated immune functions. This immunologic deficiency and immune dysregulation predisposes the host to a variety of opportunistic infections and unusual neoplasms, especially KS. HIV may play an indirect role in the development of KS.
Approximately 95% of all the cases of epidemic KS in the United States have been diagnosed in homosexual or bisexual men. In the past, approximately 26% of all homosexual males with HIV disease presented with, or eventually developed, KS during the course of their illness. By comparison, fewer than 3% of all heterosexual intravenous drug users with HIV disease developed KS. The proportion of HIV disease patients with KS has steadily decreased since the epidemic was first identified in 1981. About 48% of AIDS patients in 1981 had KS as their presenting AIDS diagnosis. By August 1987, the cumulative proportion of AIDS patients with KS had diminished to fewer than 20%. The introduction of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) has delayed or prevented the emergence of drug-resistant HIV strains, profoundly decreased viral load, led to increased survival, and lessened the risk of opportunistic infections.[17,18,19] The use of HAART has been associated with a sustained and substantial decline in KS incidence in multiple large cohorts.[20,21,22,23,24,25]
The lesions that develop may involve the skin; oral mucosa; lymph nodes; and visceral organs, such as the gastrointestinal tract, lung, liver, and spleen. Most patients with HIV disease who present with the mucocutaneous lesions of KS feel healthy and are usually free of systemic symptoms, as compared to patients with HIV disease who first develop an opportunistic infection. The sites of disease at presentation of epidemic KS are much more varied than the sites seen in other types of this neoplasm. In an early report on the clinical manifestations of the disease, 49 patients were described. Of these patients, 8% had no skin involvement, 27% had localized or fewer than five skin lesions, and 63% had innumerable skin lesions widely distributed over the skin surface area. Of these patients, 61% had generalized lymphadenopathy at the time of the first examination. Four of these patients, who had generalized lymphadenopathy in the absence of skin lesions or detectable visceral organ involvement at the time of presentation, were found to have biopsy-proven KS localized to the lymph nodes. In 45% of the patients studied, KS lesions were found in one or more sites along the gastrointestinal tract. Of these patients, 29% had either unexplained fever or unexplained weight loss when first seen. While most patients present with skin disease, KS involvement of lymph nodes or the gastrointestinal tract may occasionally precede the appearance of the cutaneous lesions.
Eventually, most patients with epidemic KS develop disseminated disease. The disease often progresses in an orderly fashion from a few localized or widespread mucocutaneous lesions to more numerous lesions and generalized skin disease with lymph node, gastrointestinal tract disease, and other organ involvement. Pleuropulmonary KS is an ominous sign usually occurring late in the course of the disease, especially in those patients whose death is directly attributed to KS. Most patients with epidemic KS die of one or more complicating opportunistic infections.
Nonepidemic Gay–Related Kaposi Sarcoma
Several reports documented KS in homosexual men who persistently had no evidence of HIV infection. These patients had an indolent and cutaneous form of the disease, which caused new lesions to appear every few years. Lesions occur most commonly on the extremities and genitalia but can occur anywhere on the skin. These cases may indicate the presence of causal factors other than HIV that homosexual men may be exposed to because of their lifestyle.
The staging evaluation of patients with classic Kaposi sarcoma (KS) should be individualized. The advanced age of most of the patients, localized nature of the tumor, rarity of visceral involvement, and usually indolent course of the disease should temper the extent of the evaluation. A careful examination of the skin and lymph nodes is sufficient in most cases. For the rare patient with rapidly progressive tumor or signs or symptoms of visceral involvement, appropriate evaluation is indicated. No universally accepted classification is available for epidemic KS. Staging schemes that incorporate laboratory parameters as well as clinical features have been proposed. Since most patients with epidemic KS do not die from the disease, factors besides tumor burden are apparently involved in survival.
The conventions used to stage KS and the methods used to evaluate the benefits of KS treatment continue to evolve because of changes in the treatment of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and in recognition of deficiencies in standard tumor assessment. The clinical course of KS, the selection of treatment, and the response to treatment are heavily influenced by the degree of underlying immune dysfunction and opportunistic infections.
The AIDS Clinical Trials Group (ACTG) Oncology Committee has published criteria for the evaluation of epidemic KS. The staging system incorporates measures of extent of disease, severity of immunodeficiency, and presence of systemic symptoms. As shown in Table 1 below, the ACTG criteria categorizes the extent of the tumor as localized or disseminated, the CD4 cell number as high or low, and a systemic illness as absent or present.
A subsequent prospective analysis of 294 patients entered on ACTG trials for KS between 1989 and 1995 showed that each of the tumor, immune system, and systemic illness variables was independently associated with survival. Multivariate analysis showed that immune system impairment was the most important single predictor of survival. In patients with relatively high CD4 counts, tumor stage was predictive. A CD4 count of 150 cells/mm³ may be a better discriminator than the published cutoff of 200 cells/mm³. A study is in progress to determine if viral load adds predictive information. None of the prior studies were conducted at a time when highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) was readily available. The impact of HAART on survival in KS requires continued assessment.
Classic Kaposi sarcoma (KS) usually is limited to the skin and has an indolent course. Patients with this tumor are predisposed to the development of a second primary malignancy, and the treating physician should consider this factor when arranging a schedule of follow-up treatment for the patient.
Equivalent standard treatment options:
Widespread skin disease:
EBRT used in this manner gave long-term results that were superior to those obtained with radiation therapy administered to successive individual lesions as they appeared.
One patient was treated repeatedly with intralesional injections of 0.25 to 0.50 mg of vincristine, which resulted in complete disappearance of the treated lesion. Multiple courses of therapy were required because of the recurrence of disease in untreated areas.
Lymph node and gastrointestinal tract involvement:
Current Clinical Trials
Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with classic Kaposi sarcoma. The list of clinical trials can be further narrowed by location, drug, intervention, and other criteria.
General information about clinical trials is also available from the NCI Web site.
Some patients with Kaposi Sarcoma (KS) have noted spontaneous and lasting remissions following discontinuation of immunosuppressive therapy. In managing these patients, if immunosuppressive therapy is not critical, its discontinuation is a reasonable first step.
Standard treatment options:
Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with immunosuppressive treatment related Kaposi sarcoma. The list of clinical trials can be further narrowed by location, drug, intervention, and other criteria.
Treatment may result:
No data are available, however, to show that treatment improves survival. In addition to antitumor treatment, essential components of an optimal Kaposi sarcoma (KS) treatment strategy include highly active antiretroviral treatment (HAART), prophylaxis for opportunistic infections, and rapid recognition and treatment of intercurrent infections.
Most good-risk patients, as defined by the AIDS Clinical Trials Group, show tumor regression with HAART alone. Poor-risk patients usually require a combination of HAART and chemotherapy with discontinuation of the chemotherapy after disappearance of the skin lesion.
Small localized lesions of KS may be treated by electrodesiccation and curettage, cryotherapy, or by surgical excision. KS tumors are also generally very responsive to local radiation therapy, and excellent palliation has been obtained with doses at 20 Gy or slightly higher.[3,4,5] One report demonstrated a response rate higher than 90%, with a median time to progression of 21 months. Although no difference in response was noted with a variety of fractionation regimens, a single fraction of 8 Gy is indicated for cutaneous lesions and is associated with significantly fewer severe reactions. Radiation therapy is generally reserved to treat localized areas of the skin and oral cavity. It is less often used to control pulmonary, gastrointestinal tract, or other sites of KS lesions. Localized KS lesions have also been effectively treated with intralesional injections of vinblastine. Alitretinoin 0.1% gel provided local control in a randomized prospective multicenter trial.[Level of evidence: 1iiDiv]
In epidemic KS, the already profoundly depressed immunologic status of the host limits the therapeutic usefulness of systemic chemotherapy. Systemic chemotherapy studies in epidemic KS have used as single agents or in combinations doxorubicin, bleomycin, vinblastine, vincristine, etoposide, paclitaxel, and docetaxel.[9,10,11,12,13][Level of evidence: 3iiiDiv]
Randomized multicenter trials showed an improvement in response rate (45%–60% vs. 20%–25%) and a more favorable toxic effects profile for pegylated liposomal doxorubicin or liposomal daunorubicin, compared to the combination of doxorubicin, bleomycin, and vincristine or bleomycin and vincristine.[14,15,16][Level of evidence: 1iiDiv] During HAART, both pegylated liposomal doxorubicin and paclitaxel are active single agents with response rates close to 50%.[Level of evidence: 1iiDiv]
The interferon alphas have also been widely studied and show a 40% objective response rate in patients with epidemic KS.[18,19] In these reports, the responses differed significantly according to the prognostic factors of extent of disease, prior or coexistent opportunistic infections, prior treatment with chemotherapy, CD4 lymphocyte counts lower than 200 cells/mm³, the presence of circulating acid-labile interferon alpha, and an increase in beta-2-microglobulin. Several treatment studies have combined interferon alpha with other chemotherapeutic agents. Overall, these trials have shown no benefit with the interferon-chemotherapy combinations as compared to the single-agent activities.
Recombinant interferon alpha-2a and interferon alpha-2b were the first agents approved for the treatment of KS. Approval was based on single-agent studies performed in the 1980s before the advent of antiretroviral therapy. The early studies demonstrated improved efficacy at relatively high doses. High-dose monotherapy is rarely used today, and instead, interferon is given in combination with other anti-HIV drugs in doses of 4 to 18 million units. Neutropenia is dose limiting, and trials of doses of 1 to 10 million units combined with less myelosuppressive antiretrovirals are in progress. Response to interferon is slow, and the maximum effect is seen after 6 or more months. Interferon should probably not be used in the treatment of patients with rapidly progressive, symptomatic KS.
Bevacizumab, the humanized, antivascular, endothelial growth–factor monoclonal antibody, had a response rate in 5 of 16 patients who did not improve after the institution of HAART and chemotherapy.[Level of evidence: 3iiiDiv]
Interleukin-12 had a response rate of 71% (95% confidence interval, 48%–89%) among 24 evaluable patients in a phase I and phase II trial.[Level of evidence: 3iiiDiv]
Treatment options under clinical evaluation:
Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with AIDS-related Kaposi sarcoma. The list of clinical trials can be further narrowed by location, drug, intervention, and other criteria.
The prognosis for any treated Kaposi sarcoma patient with progressing, recurring, or relapsing disease is highly variable. Deciding on further treatment depends on many factors, most importantly the clinical setting (i.e., classic, immunosuppressive treatment, or AIDS) in which the tumor arises as well as individual patient considerations.
Clinical trials are appropriate and should be considered when possible.
Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with recurrent Kaposi sarcoma. The list of clinical trials can be further narrowed by location, drug, intervention, and other criteria.
The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.
Classic Kaposi Sarcoma Treatment
Added text to state that in addition to the positive response rates of pegylated liposomal doxorubicin and the vinca alkaloids, response rates showing a greater than 50% decrease in lesions have also been reported in small, uncontrolled series for etoposide, taxanes, gemcitabine, and interferon alfa (cited Régnier-Rosencher et al. as reference 8 and level of evidence 3iiiDiv).
This summary is written and maintained by the PDQ Adult Treatment Editorial Board, which is editorially independent of NCI. The summary reflects an independent review of the literature and does not represent a policy statement of NCI or NIH. More information about summary policies and the role of the PDQ Editorial Boards in maintaining the PDQ summaries can be found on the About This PDQ Summary and PDQ NCI's Comprehensive Cancer Database pages.
Purpose of This Summary
This PDQ cancer information summary for health professionals provides comprehensive, peer-reviewed, evidence-based information about the treatment of Kaposi sarcoma. It is intended as a resource to inform and assist clinicians who care for cancer patients. It does not provide formal guidelines or recommendations for making health care decisions.
Reviewers and Updates
This summary is reviewed regularly and updated as necessary by the PDQ Adult Treatment Editorial Board, which is editorially independent of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The summary reflects an independent review of the literature and does not represent a policy statement of NCI or the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Board members review recently published articles each month to determine whether an article should:
Changes to the summaries are made through a consensus process in which Board members evaluate the strength of the evidence in the published articles and determine how the article should be included in the summary.
The lead reviewers for Kaposi Sarcoma Treatment are:
Any comments or questions about the summary content should be submitted to Cancer.gov through the Web site's Contact Form. Do not contact the individual Board Members with questions or comments about the summaries. Board members will not respond to individual inquiries.
Levels of Evidence
Some of the reference citations in this summary are accompanied by a level-of-evidence designation. These designations are intended to help readers assess the strength of the evidence supporting the use of specific interventions or approaches. The PDQ Adult Treatment Editorial Board uses a formal evidence ranking system in developing its level-of-evidence designations.
Permission to Use This Summary
PDQ is a registered trademark. Although the content of PDQ documents can be used freely as text, it cannot be identified as an NCI PDQ cancer information summary unless it is presented in its entirety and is regularly updated. However, an author would be permitted to write a sentence such as "NCI's PDQ cancer information summary about breast cancer prevention states the risks succinctly: [include excerpt from the summary]."
The preferred citation for this PDQ summary is:
National Cancer Institute: PDQ® Kaposi Sarcoma Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Date last modified <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/types/soft-tissue-sarcoma/hp/kaposi-treatment-pdq. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>.
Images in this summary are used with permission of the author(s), artist, and/or publisher for use within the PDQ summaries only. Permission to use images outside the context of PDQ information must be obtained from the owner(s) and cannot be granted by the National Cancer Institute. Information about using the illustrations in this summary, along with many other cancer-related images, is available in Visuals Online, a collection of over 2,000 scientific images.
Based on the strength of the available evidence, treatment options may be described as either "standard" or "under clinical evaluation." These classifications should not be used as a basis for insurance reimbursement determinations. More information on insurance coverage is available on Cancer.gov on the Coping with Cancer: Financial, Insurance, and Legal Information page.
More information about contacting us or receiving help with the Cancer.gov Web site can be found on our Contact Us for Help page. Questions can also be submitted to Cancer.gov through the Web site's Contact Form.
For more information, U.S. residents may call the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., Eastern Time. A trained Cancer Information Specialist is available to answer your questions.
The NCI's LiveHelp® online chat service provides Internet users with the ability to chat online with an Information Specialist. The service is available from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Eastern time, Monday through Friday. Information Specialists can help Internet users find information on NCI Web sites and answer questions about cancer.
Write to us
For more information from the NCI, please write to this address:
Search the NCI Web site
The NCI Web site provides online access to information on cancer, clinical trials, and other Web sites and organizations that offer support and resources for cancer patients and their families. For a quick search, use the search box in the upper right corner of each Web page. The results for a wide range of search terms will include a list of "Best Bets," editorially chosen Web pages that are most closely related to the search term entered.
There are also many other places to get materials and information about cancer treatment and services. Hospitals in your area may have information about local and regional agencies that have information on finances, getting to and from treatment, receiving care at home, and dealing with problems related to cancer treatment.
The NCI has booklets and other materials for patients, health professionals, and the public. These publications discuss types of cancer, methods of cancer treatment, coping with cancer, and clinical trials. Some publications provide information on tests for cancer, cancer causes and prevention, cancer statistics, and NCI research activities. NCI materials on these and other topics may be ordered online or printed directly from the NCI Publications Locator. These materials can also be ordered by telephone from the Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).
Last Revised: 2014-10-17
Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.
Heart Attack Care
Heart Failure Care