Friday, September 16, 2011

New treatment for cancer by virus infection

The vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV) is seemingly able to infect cancer cells and kill them. This could open up a whole new area of cancer treatment. According to scientists of the University of Kopenhagen, VSV is able to infect and kill human cancer cells in the lab. Interestingly, the virus has a second way of getting rid of cancer cells: it also prevents expression of certain molecules by the cancer cells, that helps them escape from the immune system of the body.

VSV is effective for a wide variety of cancer types. Additionally, by mutating the virus and modifying its properties, it can perhaps be adapted for use in many more cancer variants. The scientists do not explain by which mechanism the virus infects the cells, and how it inhibits expression of molecules used for evasion of the immune system. 

The researchers are now talking about clinical trials in humans. This is surprising, as they do not seem to speak about any animal testing being performed, prior to tests in humans. But apparently, such clinical trials are already being conducted in the USA

Using viruses to cure cancer is an interesting novel method. There is a lot of research focused on specifically targeting cancer cells, for example by antibodies coupled with a cytotoxic compound. These so-called "magic bullets" have been hallowed as the perfect cure for cancer, but so far, clinical trials have not shown much of the promised effectiveness, which is why crude methods such as chemotherapy are still being used. Virus treatment could change that, however, there are risks about viruses mutating during the treatment, with unpredictable effects. Of course, with only in vitro results as hard evidence for their effectiveness in cancer, we're a long way from showing actual effectiveness as a cancer treatment in patients.

Nowadays, viruses are often used for use in genetic modification. Cells are infected with a pre-modified virus carrying a gene of interest, which then is supposed to incorporate its genetic material into the hosts DNA. This is how viruses normally reproduce: they hijack the cells' machinery for reproduction to make the cell create viral material, which is then assembled to create new viruses that are able to infect other cells. 

Some viruses cause cancer, some viruses cure cancer. An interesting duality.

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