Flu used to stop cancer
Researchers have used a modified flu virus to successfully stop the growth of pancreatic cancer in mice.
The study suggests that the new technique could become a promising new treatment for patients with the aggressive disease, and could be combined with existing chemotherapy to improve chances of survival.
“We’ve shown for the first time that pancreatic cancers can be specifically targeted with a modified version of the common flu virus,” says British researcher Dr Stella Man.
“The new virus specifically infects and kills pancreatic cancer cells, causing few side effects in nearby healthy tissue. Not only is our targeting strategy both selective and effective, but we have now further engineered the virus so that it can be delivered in the blood stream to reach cancer cells that have spread throughout the body.
“If we manage to confirm these results in human clinical trials, then this may become a promising new treatment for pancreatic cancer patients, and could be combined with existing chemotherapy drugs to kill persevering cancer cells.”
Around 3,000 Australians are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year. The disease has the lowest survival rate of all cancers, with fewer than five per cent of patients diagnosed surviving for five years or more.
The poor survival rate is linked to late diagnosis of the disease and the cancer’s rapid development of resistance to current therapies.
To avoid drug resistance, the use of mutated viruses has emerged as a promising new strategy for attacking cancers in a more targeted way.
In the latest study, experts investigated a unique feature of pancreatic cancer cells – the presence of a specific molecule called alpha v beta 6 (αvβ6), which is found on the surface of many pancreatic cancer cells but, crucially, not on normal cells.
The team modified a common flu virus to have an additional small protein on its outer coat that recognises and binds to αvβ6-molecules.
Once the virus enters the cancer cell, the virus replicates, producing many copies of itself prior to bursting out of the cell and thereby destroying it in the process.
The newly released viral copies can then bind onto neighbouring cancer cells and repeat the same cycle, eventually removing the tumour mass altogether.
The researchers tested the viruses on human pancreatic cancer cells, which had been grafted onto mice, and found that they inhibited cancer growth.
The concept of using modified viruses has previously shown promising results in various cancers including brain, head and neck, and prostate.
The researchers say that their new virus is more specific and efficacious than previous viral versions, and has the added advantage of being able to co-operate with chemotherapy drugs that are currently used in the clinic.