Potential cancer cure from an old foe

By | Health & Wellness
Viruses such as this one could be used to treat cancer, according to new research. Credit image@ Science Photo Library Creative Commons

Scientists have created a potential cure for one of the most hard-to-treat forms of breast cancer, publishing their results in the journal Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, which will be available this month.

This international team, with specialists from the United States and Germany in fields ranging from medical physics and radiology to molecular infection biology, created a virus in order to make the cancer cells more susceptible to radioactive iodine, one of the many cancer treatments available.

The team was looking at a form of cancer known as triple negative breast cancer, which is found in around 20% of women who have breast cancer. This type of cancer lacks genes responsible for making the protein Her2/neu, as well as those that allow the expression of oestrogen or progesterone receptors, making it a challenge to treat as most chemotherapies target one of these receptors.

The researchers do underline the fact that further trials are required before they can adequately label this form of treatment a “cure,” however the results from their laboratory experiments look extremely promising.

In these experiments, human tissue expressing the triple negative breast cancer cells was tested.

The scientists used the vaccinia virus during the tests. This virus is perhaps most famously known for curing smallpox, the first ever vaccine to be developed, acting as the active component of the inoculation.

Creating “custom” virus, engineered to cause certain gene expression or infect specific tissue for example, is an emerging field in medical sciences, yet humanity could reap massive rewards using such technology. The flexible and specific nature of viruses means that they can be used for many applications, and the fact that they have evolved to enter cells via various means could be used to our advantage.

Laboratory tests showed just how effective the virus was at neutralizing and eliminating cancer cells. In addition to being able to successfully infect the cancer cells with the virus, they were also able to eliminate the cancer from the human tissue samples.

However, even more promisingly, the team was also able to modify the virus so that once it entered the cancer cells, they would be forced to create a certain type of surface protein, known as hNIS, that would make them more susceptible to the form of treatment using radioactive iodine.

Radioactive iodine is currently used in many cancer treatments, notably to cure thyroid cancer. Importantly, this treatment only affects the cancer cells, having an almost negligible effect on healthy tissue, making this an efficient and targeted form of treatment.

By making a virus that causes the expression of a cell surface protein normally found in thyroid cancer, the scientists were able to cure the triple negative breast cancer in the samples despite the hardy and complex nature of the condition, especially seeing as this form of cancer lacks the receptors typically targeted by chemotherapy drugs.

Gerald Weissmann, M.D., and Editor-in-Chief of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Journal, spoke of the significance of the research on the online edition of the journal, saying, “[…] the effects of this virus and radioactive iodine are well known in people, hopefully reducing the amount of time it will take for it to reach the clinic.” As a result, this new form of treatment could be made available to patients in the near future, whilst consolidating the foundations of this relatively new form of medicine that hopes to use viruses as allies, using their clever biological machinery to help cure a whole swathe of conditions.

What other fields of medicine would you like to see engineered viruses used as a future form of treatment?

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