It sounds more a like film script than a major medical development. A virus found in Brazilian sandflies was collected by an American physician, he shared with it Canadian doctors and researchers who developed it and are now using it to potentially revolutionize cancer treatment.
So how does it work? When normal cells become cancerous, they also become more susceptible to viruses, said Dr. John Bell, a senior scientist at the Ottawa Hospital, who is considered a world leader in the field.
“As cancers evolve and they acquire mutations in their genetic information – that’s how cancers arise in the first place,” Bell told Global News. “We now know that as they evolve and become more and more malignant they also lose their ability to fight virus infections.”
“They (cancers) sort of make a deal with the devil they want to become immortal, grow uncontrolled but in so doing that, they have to give up some of their antiviral defences,” said Bell.
That’s where the virus comes in and attacks the cancer, it also causes a person’s immune system to respond. The Brazilian virus is called the Maraba virus.
“It’s a really exciting time. I’ve been in cancer research for a long time and I’d say in the last five years the world is just completely changing and part of that is because we now have a better grip and understand how our own immune system can be used to fight cancer,” said Bell.
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Currently, Bell and a team of researchers and physicians are conducting the first-ever clinical trial on patients using two viruses – adenovirus, a common cold virus and the Maraba virus.
The Maraba virus attacks the cancer cells and the patient’s own body has an immune response also helping in the fight. The trial is targeting a protein found in melanoma (skin cancer), lung cancer and a variety of cancers in the gastrointestinal tract. Results are still pending but so far it appears promising.
“It’s a growing area, and certainly using the immune system to fight cancer is the fastest growing area in cancer therapeutics right now,” Brian Lichty, associate professor of pathology and molecular medicine at McMaster University, told Global News.
Expanding the research to prostate cancer
With its success so far, the research team is now also focusing on prostate cancer. Prostate cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among Canadian men.
“We can custom design these viruses that we’re using to treat cancer, to target different cancer types,” said Lichty.
The goal is to design a set of viruses suited to treat prostate cancer and eventually reach a clinical trial phase. This new research is being funded by a $5 million grant from the Movember Foundation and Prostate Cancer Canada.
“We really feel confident this approach has a chance to be effective in cancer patients,” said Bell.