HIV, Smallpox, Measles – could these dangerous and sometimes deadly diseases, each in their own time the scourge of humanity, be the cure for cancer? It may seem an outlandish concept, but the idea has its roots in in practical medicine from as far back as the early 1900s. Now, researchers at hospitals and universities across North America are currently testing ways of treating various forms of cancer with modified versions of these viruses, and the results so far look promising.
In the Feb. 27th episode, VICE brought us to the forefront of cancer research and clinical trials. Shane Smith, co-founder of VICE, travels the country to interview medical professionals pioneering new cancer treatment methods. Diseases that used to kill us are now being re-engineered to fight cancer cells within patients’ bodies.
“For the first time in medical history it appears we just might be on the verge of curing cancer.”—Shane Smith, co-founder of VICE
Using Deadly Viruses
Senior Scientist Dr. John Bell of the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute is credited as the first to figure out that viruses can attack cancer cells without harming the healthy cells around them. However, the potential for viruses to eradicate cancers has been suspected for over a century.
In the early 1900s, medical doctors began to notice a relationship between viral infections and cancer remissions. They were treating prostitutes, who lived in poverty, for rabies and cervical cancer because of their connection to the sex trade. When the prostitutes were treated with the rabies vaccine, the doctors noticed their tumors went into remission. It wasn’t until more recently that scientists have learned to manipulate the genetic structure of viruses so that they might be used to safely treat cancer.
In 2010, Bell published a study about the intravenous administration of a virus called Vaccinia, a smallpox vaccine. The virus was engineered to be safe for the patient by activating only in cancer cells. Its attack on cancer cells is a 2-part process. Once administered, the virus flows through the bloodstream seeking out tumors. When it finds a tumor, the virus infects it and replicates itself until the cancer cells actually explode, leaving the surrounding healthy cells intact.
Cancer cells have a detrimental impact on the body’s ability to fight back because they release hormones that suppress the immune system. The virus deactivates these hormones from being produced and alerts the body’s immune system to the exploded pieces of cancer cells. The patient’s own immune system then takes over and eradicates the rest.
Using Measles Virus Against Bone Marrow Cancer
At the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, doctors are fighting myeloma, or bone marrow cancer, with an engineered measles virus developed by a team led by Dr. Stephen Russell, an oncolytic virus therapy researcher. The team placed a gene in the virus that traps radioactive iodine, allowing them to take radio-iodine scans to track the virus within the bloodstream. In these scans, doctors are able to see high concentrations of the iodine as soon as a week after the administration of the virus. These concentrations correlate with the tumors shown in a PET scan, which means the virus has concentrated around, and is fighting, the tumors.
Using Adenovirus Against Brain Cancer
At the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, researchers genetically modified the adenovirus, which causes the common cold, to target brain cancer. One of the people responsible for bringing this treatment from the research lab to clinical trials is Dr. Frederick Lang, director of Neurosurgery Clinical Research.
In the lab, they tested the virus within animal models. Researchers used real human brain tumors to culture the cells. They then put those cells into the brains of mice to administer the modified virus. Within 3 weeks, many of the mice that had been injected with the adenovirus showed no tumors in the brain. The mice that were injected with saline showed increased growth in the brain tumors.
In practice on humans, doctors surgically access the tumor within the brain. The drug is then injected directly into the tumor in a procedure that takes about 5 hours. As soon as 6 weeks later, MRI scans have shown that the tumors stopped growing.
Using HIV Against Leukemia
At the Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, doctors are using HIV to treat leukemia. This T cell therapy is the brainchild of Dr. Carl June, director of Translational Research at the University of Pennsylvania Abramson Cancer Center, who has a unique background in studying both cancer and HIV. T cells are white blood cells that flow through the bloodstream, seeking and destroying foreign pathogens. They are the foundation of the immune system.
June explains that a number of labs over the past 15 years have learned how to “gut” HIV cells. What is left behind is the machinery to still infect a cell, but only once. This is used to help reprogram the T cell to easily distinguish leukemia cells from normal cells.
Four cases of leukemia (3 adults and 1 child) were treated in a trial. All the patients experienced very severe reactions, becoming very ill with fevers up to 106 degrees. The child, Emily Whitehead, spent 14 days in a coma because her system was overwhelmed. She survived the infusion, but as she was the first pediatric patient, there was uncertainty around whether the therapy would be successful. Miraculously, after 4 weeks, the results were in:
“They gave it to her, and 4 weeks later she was in remission.”—Kari Whitehead, Emily’s mom
All 4 patients went into remission within 4 weeks. Between 3 and 7 pounds of leukemia literally went away in these patients within weeks. June explains, “That’s the power of this approach.”
Thirty-nine children have been treated with Dr. June’s T cell therapy, and 90% of them have experienced complete remission.
Smith realizes in his conversations with Dr. June that June is no longer talking about treatment, but instead about a cure. June believes that this therapy will be FDA approved and available throughout the U.S. in 2016. There are about 300 kinds of cancer, explains June, and he believes that many of them can be cured. It is new therapies like June’s that have doctors excited and give hope to patients that one day, they will leave the clinic and their cancer will be gone.
Watch the full episode below: