Researchers seek to find the right virus to attack cancer.
Our Beloved Family:
Recently, researchers in the U.S. and Canada have been achieving encouraging results in cancer patients with a rather unusual treatment. Viruses have an uncanny ability to get inside cells, and scientists are genetically engineering them to track proteins specific to cancer. Once the virus penetrates the cancer cell, it begins replicating itself until the cancer cell dies without harming the healthy cells around it. At this point, the cancer’s cloaking mechanism is also destroyed, allowing the body’s immune system to recognize the dead cells as invaders and remove them from the body. This process is known as oncolytic virus treatment.
Although the treatment seems promising, it’s understandable that many patients would be reluctant to have large doses of a live virus injected directly into their bloodstream. That’s because most patients experience all the symptoms of the virus that’s being administered to them. The Mayo Clinic recently had success using the measles virus to eradicate myeloma, a blood cancer, because the virus is known to seek out and attack a type of white blood cell from which myeloma arises. In the process, the patients became feverish and ill, just as they would with the measles. While the virus destroyed the cancer cells, their immune systems destroyed the measles virus and removed it, along with what was left of the cancer, from their bodies.
It’s been known for over a century that fever associated with an illness puts the immune system in high gear.
At present, there is some debate about whether it’s actually the virus that’s killing the cancer by entering the cell or it’s the body’s immune system that’s being woken up by the introduction of the virus, and destroying it along with the cancer at the same time. It’s been known for over a century that fever associated with an illness puts the immune system in high gear. In the process of eradicating the pathogen, virtually all other dangerous organisms present in the body are destroyed, as well. There are many recorded cases of patients contracting various fever-related illnesses and within days, seeing their cancers disappear, never to return.
In 1884, physician, William B. Coley, read the case of German immigrant, Fred Stein, who suffered from a cheek sarcoma that was considered hopeless. After contracting erysipelas, a post-operative skin disease, Stein developed a high fever after which his cancer disappeared within days with no trace of recurrence in six years of follow up. Eventually, Dr. Coley’s research would turn up over 40 cases of recovery from cancer after a fever, each more dramatic than the next. Recognizing the connection, he decided to see if the phenomenon could be administered therapeutically. The result would become known as Coley’s toxin, an injection that included the bacteria s. pyogenes and s. marcscenes, which are known to cause throat, skin, eye, urinary tract and respiratory infections. Dr. Coley administered his injection in increasing doses over 10 weeks to a 16-year-old boy with an inoperable abdominal tumor. Naturally, the boy became very ill with fever but over the course of the treatment, his tumor continued to shrink and eventually disappeared, never to return in the 20 years of follow up he maintained with Dr. Coley.
Over time, Dr. Coley had trouble producing consistent results with his toxin, perhaps because it contained only dead samples of the bacteria. By the 1920’s, radiation had been introduced and was seen as the revolutionary “high tech” treatment for cancer. As a result, Dr. Coley’s work faded into the background even though patients with Ewing’s sarcoma receiving his treatment remained cancer-free after five years, while those who received radiation died within the same time period.
In the 1950’s, the hospital that would become Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center was witnessing significant tumor shrinkage after treating lymphoma patients with West Nile Virus. When many patients began to get drowsy and confused, researchers feared they were contracting the disease, and the trials were closed. That was the end of oncolytic virus treatment until just a few years ago.
Today, much of the research revolves around finding the right virus to attack a specific kind of cancer. This isn’t a one-size-fits-all process. As unnerving as it might sound, experiments are being conducted with many viruses including measles (myeloma), HIV (leukemia) and even small pox. Although all pathogens are sterilized, it’s understandable that patients would have concerns. Perhaps the years of further study that are required before this treatment becomes widely available will eventually answer all of those questions.
The most interesting fact in all of this is that if the patient has been previously vaccinated for the virus that best targets his or her cancer, oncolytic virus therapy will not work. The patient’s own antibodies will trigger the immune system into action much too soon, destroying the therapeutic virus before it has a chance to create any symptoms like fever or even enter the cancer cells. In the above Mayo Clinic study, the patients’ lack of immunity was critical to its success and their recovery from cancer. This is of much concern, especially among those who have failed to respond to all other treatments and may look to onclytic virus treatment as their lifeline.
There has long been talk in the medical community that perhaps it’s best to let the human immune system do its own heavy lifting when it comes to disease with each bout of illness serving to strengthen its function and overall response. By artificially boosting it, we may be causing it to atrophy, creating a false sense of security at times when we need it the most.
Light & Love in the Month Ahead,
Drs. Sadeghi & Sami
Please keep reading for how to boost your immunity during cold and flu season.