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Medicine Science Technology

Killing Cancer With Engineered Viruses 144

techfun89 writes "Viruses can make us all sick, but one day could be engineered to defeat cancer. Cancer cells have one trait that may leave them open to attack. They aren't good at killing off viral infections, hence, at least in theory, you could use a virus to kill cancer cells without affecting the patient. Dr. Ian Mohr, a virologist at New York University, altered the herpes virus so that it isn't attacked by the immune system and kills cancer cells more efficiently. Another virus that is proving effective for liver cancer is Vaccinia. Vaccinia is used to protect against smallpox and so far the results have been promising. Several groups of patients have had an increase in survival times. Meanwhile other viruses are being used for things like melanoma, bladder cancer, and head and neck cancer."
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Killing Cancer With Engineered Viruses

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 21, 2012 @03:17PM (#39431625)

    So, patient, we cured your cancer but now you have herpes. Feel better?

    • by DC2088 ( 2343764 ) on Wednesday March 21, 2012 @03:19PM (#39431655)
      The answer would be a resounding yes. I'd rather have herpes than be dead.
      • What if it was a non-fatal cancer? Would you take herpes over having your testicles/breasts removed?

        • by ThatOtherGuy435 ( 1773144 ) on Wednesday March 21, 2012 @03:26PM (#39431773)
          Given that 90% of herpes is social stigma, and it's actually one of the least problematic STDs out there? Yes.
          • by Anonymous Coward

            As long as there's no such thing as hand-herpes it's no problem at all to most Slashdotters.

          • I might just take a prosthetic testicle, given the option and all other outcomes being equal.

            Though I wonder if they don't render most of the nasty bits of this herpes virus inert. I seem to remember reading something similar about an HIV based one.

            Yep, harmless, modified version of HIV used as treatment for lukemia:
            http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/44090512/ns/health-cancer/t/new-leukemia-treatment-exceeds-wildest-expectations/ [msn.com]

          • You realize that every outbreak causes CNS damage? The virus is dormant in the CNS, and when there's an outbreak the virus is multiplying... this damaging the CNS tissue that it was inhabiting.

            That kind of damage tends to be cumulative.

          • by chooks ( 71012 )

            Unless you are pregnant -- in which case prenatal herpes infection can cause death or severe morbidity of the fetus.

            Or unless you get encephalitis -- HSV is a big player in that game too.

            Or unless you are immunocompromised (due to cancer treatment, HIV, lymphoproliferative disorders, etc...)

        • Considering that I have cold sores now, yes. Absolutely. 100% of the time and then some. Herpes, while sucky, is much better than tearing apart parts of your body to hopefully kill a cancer. And that's before all the hormone and self-esteem. Yes, herpes all the way.

          • So... where do you believe the virus lays dormant in? You realize that when a virus spreads it destroys the cell that had been manufacturing it?

            Herpes is dormant in neural tissue. Tissue that is damaged every time it outbreaks.

        • I'm not using them anyway, so what does it matter. ;-)

          And on a side note, now I know where the word vaccine came from (from smallpox's vaccinia).

          • by srjh ( 1316705 ) on Wednesday March 21, 2012 @07:15PM (#39434701)

            From the latin vacca, or cow.

            Because the first steps towards a smallpox vaccine were based on the realisation that dairy workers who had contracted cowpox were immune to smallpox. Vaccinia is very closely related to cowpox, but has diverged from it slightly since the its widespread use as a vaccine.

            Because it was so successful as a vaccine, the name vaccination stuck.

            Miss that part of the story, and it's nowhere near as interesting.

    • by DurendalMac ( 736637 ) on Wednesday March 21, 2012 @03:32PM (#39431863)
      No. This has already been done with HIV, and although the trial was small, the success was remarkable. They use the invasive traits of the virus with none of the nastiness. It's incredibly promising, so much that we may well have a cure (or at least a damned good treatment) for cancer within the next decade.
      • The news is so old the method should have been mainstream medicine for years. IIRC first experiments were about 2000.
      • by foobsr ( 693224 )

        although the trial was small, the success was remarkable

        We had two candidates, only one failed.

        We had two samples of 10 each. In the untreated one, 1 survived, a figure which remarkably doubled in the group with treatment.


      • by mrops ( 927562 )

        What would be neat is if the virus mutates and becomes infectious like flu, one day we wake up and cancer is gone.

        Though drug companies will make every effort so this is not the case. In fact, if during their research a scientist comes and says we cured cancer with this virus, but its also infectious and has no other side effects, his research will more than likely shut down.

        • by dgatwood ( 11270 )

          IIRC, the virus has to be targeted at specific structures on the exterior of a specific type of cancer cell, so it is unlikely that anyone who doesn't have cancer could usefully be a carrier. This makes the chances of it spreading among the general population effectively zero.

          • Turn it around, though. Big Pharma would love to get a cancer vaccine or 30, considering that each tissue type seems to have its own cancer variant. The cure gets loose, they just test for its presence in every blood test, and charge the patient for the vaccine...
            • by hoggoth ( 414195 )

              They could hire some Monsanto lawyers as consultants. "Our vaccine has accidentally blown into Mr. Smith's bloodstream. We require Mr. Smith to pay licensing fees or return all of his blood to us."

        • by Samantha Wright ( 1324923 ) on Wednesday March 21, 2012 @06:21PM (#39434029) Homepage Journal
          Just to shut down this line of reasoning: it requires a large number of genes for a virus to reproduce, which the researchers remove completely to make room for the more useful payload. In the case of the HIV-based study being described, that payload rewired one class of immune cells to identify another class of immune cells (which included the cancerous ones) and destroy them. Viruses crippled in this way can't spontaneously develop the ability to reproduce any more than a human eunuch can. Mutations occur during reproduction, which medically-engineered viruses have no opportunity for doing.
      • by JamesP ( 688957 )

        So, next step, to cure aids they will use a specially engineered cancer!

    • by Adriax ( 746043 )

      I recall a slashdot story years about about using a virus found in pond scum to attack tumors. The idea was normal cells have dealt with this virus many times over, but the cancer cells forget what to do with it.
      They had a before and after picture of a golfball sized tumor on the back of someone's neck that was almost completely gone after one injection of this stuff.

      Always wondered what happened to that research, I figured some big drug company silenced it.

      • The idea was normal cells have dealt with this virus many times over, but the cancer cells forget what to do with it.

        That can't be right... normal cells do not handle virii, that's the responsibility of specific immune cells.

        • All cells have many features that passively block viruses by messing them up. (Sorry, "virii" isn't a word.) A lot of mechanisms for gene regulation work by chopping up transcripts and proteins that are recognized by the cell as having broken down due to heavy use. This conveniently encumbers viral payload delivery, but is usually dysfunctional in cancer.
          • I thought biological viruses was where "virii" is actually used? Huh.

            Thanks for the explanation!

            • Nah. Biologists are sticklers about preserving dying Latin forms (hence treating "data" as a plural when the rest of the world has moved it to singular) and because "virus" was uncountable and had no plural in Latin, they're pretty opposed to formulating a Latin plural that was never attested historically. My girlfriend, who moved from studying Classics to Biochemistry, often remarked that many of the newer coinages were fantastically vapid—the whole mitotic cycle is made up of things like 'long phase
      • They got a grant for a 5-year study, in 2008. So it ain't over yet.

        http://www.physorg.com/news135928212.html [physorg.com]

    • by Anonymous Coward

      "Dr. Ian Mohr, a virologist at New York University, altered the herpes virus so that it isn't attacked by the immune system"

      what could possibly go wrong?

    • Altered herpes, "that it isn't attacked by the immune system"

    • by hoggoth ( 414195 )

      Cancer cure: the gift that keeps giving!

    • by mjwx ( 966435 )

      So, patient, we cured your cancer but now you have herpes. Feel better?

      Considering the fact that once you get Herpes, you have it for life (your body just suppresses the symptoms) and that it's pretty much benign except for a few blisters every now and then.

      But dont worry, scientists are working on eradicating the virus with a modified cancer.

  • I am Legend (Score:3, Insightful)

    by halfEvilTech ( 1171369 ) on Wednesday March 21, 2012 @03:18PM (#39431629)

    yea what could possibly go wrong?

  • If they set that virus free, it will be the end of all of us! NOOOOOOOOOO!!!
  • Obligatory xkcd (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ericloewe ( 2129490 ) on Wednesday March 21, 2012 @03:23PM (#39431717)
    • But with enough money and treatments you can stave off the advancement of HIV indefinitely ([magic johnson])... Whilst not cured... his HIV is at the "undetectable" levels... 20 years after he announced he had it... I know of so many cases where cancer, after being treated, goes into remission, and comes back with a vengeance. ([andy whitfield - r.i.p])
  • by mykepredko ( 40154 ) on Wednesday March 21, 2012 @03:23PM (#39431719) Homepage

    Here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/20/health/research/viruses-are-recruited-and-flipped-as-cancer-killers.html?_r=2&ref=science [nytimes.com]

    Sounds interesting (especially as somebody who is at high risk for melanoma).


  • i thought HIV was the cure for cancer.
    • To answer the question you were probably actually having: different viruses are more applicable to different cancers. HIV is ideal for blood-borne leukaemia.
  • by medv4380 ( 1604309 ) on Wednesday March 21, 2012 @03:40PM (#39431987)
    Sounds nice but once it mutates into something harmful what are you going to do?
    • by yanom ( 2512780 )
      become legend. Seriously, this is the plot device for I Am Legend. They cure cancer but the virus turns everyone into zombies.
      • In that case, the source of the problem was that the donor virus used was actually just a bunch of Hollywood movies. This made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.
    • by Samantha Wright ( 1324923 ) on Wednesday March 21, 2012 @06:25PM (#39434079) Homepage Journal
      It can't. Viruses mutate when they reproduce. These viruses have all of the genes for reproduction removed. They're essentially eunuchs.
      • So you've eliminated all forms of mutation? Doubtful since the sun is still on. I'm sure they've done everything possible to eliminate it's replication ability to "self replicate". However viruses have been shown to swap genes with other viruses and bacteria. It would be a bit arrogant to believe that a random event wont occure and cause the gene that allows it to slip by the immune system won't get picked up by other more liberal viruses or bacteria, or for it to get changed in some other fashion. Sayi
        • I realise what you're saying sounds plausible to you, but it's actually dependent on a whole swath of technical underpinnings that aren't applicable in this situation. There are cases in which co-infection by a normal virus could cause the engineered virus to be produced, but they have limitations. Let's go on a tour.

          When UV and other forms of ambient radiation cause mutations in DNA, there is a very limited amount of damage they can do. Typically this consists of damaging a single nucleotide, or causing it

          • It is not possible for a provirus to spontaneously re-develop all of the necessary machinery for making a complete package. That's equivalent to making a typo in Word and accidentally producing a Shakespearean sonnet. It's a lot of very specific programming, not random noise.

            Viruses evolved those mechanisms once before and there is no reason to believe that they wouldn't be able to do so again. Lets say one mutation occurs that makes the virus just linger in the system longer increasing the changes that the patient gets infected with the original virus. That increases the number of copies, and because this version isn't attacked by the immune system lingers around again until the patient is infected again. Given enough time and enough random mutations it could become a threa

      • by jpvlsmv ( 583001 )

        They're essentially eunuchs.

        No, GNU/Cure's Not Unuchs.

        But luckily, it's being released under the Apache public license, so it's not "viral".


  • by CmpEng ( 1123811 ) on Wednesday March 21, 2012 @03:42PM (#39432023)
    Dr. Bell at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, http://www.ohri.ca/profiles/bell.asp [www.ohri.ca]. He's been researching and using viruses to treat cancer in liver cancer. I believe it is currently in clinical trials in Europe and showing promise to not just kill cancer cells but cut off blood flow to the tumour which also helps to 'starve it'.
    • The clinical trials are under way in Ottawa at this moment. There were also several trials years ago... Right when I started getting a permanent cold!
  • Didn't Will Smith teach us not to mess with that? Zombie/Vampire things are going to eat us all!!!!(10+1)
    • Exactly.

      These researchers need to watch that movie before they go messing around with this stuff.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Yeah those stupid researchers with their fancy MDs and PhDs in virology, immunology, pharmacology, genetics, molecular biology, and decades of hands-on experience are completely ignorant of the subject. We must defer to a random group of Hollywood screen writers that just happened to land a gig adapting a decent 1950's science fiction novel into a shitty movie.

        • Hollywood screen writers just happened to land a gig adapting a decent 1950's science fiction novel into a shitty movie.

          No joke.


          In the movie, Will Smith becomes legendary by sacrificing himself and providing a cure.
          In the book, the protagonist spends his daylight hours staking vampires while they sleep or dragging their comatose bodies into the sun, and eventually discovers that he's the last human and that vampires have made a new civilization after getting a handle on their infection (feeding on animal blood?). He's become the legendary monster that kills innocents while they sleep in the safety of their homes

        • Yeah those stupid researchers with their fancy MDs and PhDs in virology, immunology, pharmacology, genetics, molecular biology, and decades of hands-on experience are completely ignorant of the subject. We must defer to a random group of Hollywood screen writers that just happened to land a gig adapting a decent 1950's science fiction novel into a shitty movie.

          Can you say woooosh?

  • HIV too! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Prien715 ( 251944 ) <agnosticpope@gmai[ ]om ['l.c' in gap]> on Wednesday March 21, 2012 @03:55PM (#39432203) Journal

    Though the sample size is much smaller, the success rate is much higher. The theory here is different though: the HIV virus infects only T-Cells. T-Cells are responsible for "marking" bodily intrusions as harmful -- but rather than the traditional AIDs payload of "don't attack anything" going into them you alter the HIV virus's DNA to train the T-Cells to kill cancers. So in essence, it teaches your body how to treat cancer as an infection.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/13/health/13gene.html?pagewanted=all [nytimes.com]

    • -- but rather than the traditional AIDs payload of "don't attack anything" going into them you alter the HIV virus's DNA to train the T-Cells to kill cancers

      You also artificially assemble the engineered virus from components and don't include the code that says "make lots more of me".

    • The choice of virus is mostly about picking what tissue you want to engineer. In the case of the technique you cited, the researchers made T cells (the immune system's hitmen, if you will) target another class of immune cells called B cells (they're the ones that make antibodies.) The engineering work was specific to the one type of B cell that had gone cancerous (although there were innocent casualties within that type.) HIV-based engineering wouldn't be practical if you were trying to fix cancer in a tiss
  • Promising, but... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by lax-goalie ( 730970 ) on Wednesday March 21, 2012 @03:59PM (#39432279)

    ...there's still tons of work to do.

    I've got a friend with brain cancer who was enrolled in one of the current virus trials - one which has shown great promise in animal studies. He ended up leaving the trial after a month or so, with tumor regrowth and tremendous swelling around the tumor site, causing all sorts of problems with speech, reading, and sight. He has surgery scheduled for tomorrow, after that, hopefully another trial.

    Not to be a downbuzz, but it's a long road before this kind of therapy is anything more than an experimental crapshoot.

    • It may be too late, but you could tell your friend about vitamin D, iodine, and vegetables, fruits, and beans, as well as fasting, in preventing and sometimes curing cancer. I've posted many links on that stuff here in the past. Just google on those term and cancer, and look up Dr. Joel Fuhrman's work and Dr. John Cannell's work. Unfortunately, the best way to deal with cancer is to prevent it by helping the human immune system deal with individual cancer cells before they proliferate. Once you have cancer,

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Ahhh, yes, special diets and fasting to treat cancer. Worked GREAT for Steve Jobs, didn't it?

        First off, good diets are the "FSKING DUH" of cancer preventions (and CV, and diabetes, etc...), but that's MAINLY with GI cancers or urinary tract cancers. Skin, brain, bone, blood? Mostly genes, with a just enough of a hint of environmental exposure to terrify you if you think about it too much.

        And as for your suggestions:
        Vitamin D's probably not gonna be the wonder drug everyone's been hoping for. The data on

        • AC, probably you feel you have the moral high ground here and so that justifies incivility and so on, but you are mainly just regurgitating outdated conventional wisdom, sorry. Saying only genes cause cancer is just deep ignorance, sorry. Genes may give people weak links, but whether those weak links are ever pulled on to the point where they break is in most cases determined by what you eat and how you live (a point Dr. Fuhrman makes in "Eat to Live"). You're just advocating a certain kind of genetic fatal

  • Problem (Score:5, Interesting)

    by wanzeo ( 1800058 ) on Wednesday March 21, 2012 @04:04PM (#39432361)

    The problem with using living solutions to medical problems (as opposed to drugs) is the high rate of mutation. Perhaps you engineered the virus to kill the cancer cells, but 2 months and 40k generations later it could be doing something completely different.

    • Re:Problem (Score:4, Informative)

      by Samantha Wright ( 1324923 ) on Wednesday March 21, 2012 @07:13PM (#39434671) Homepage Journal
      All viruses used in this manner are wired not to reproduce. It means you need to inject a lot more copies of the virus, but there's no chance of mutation in a virus that can't reproduce. And no, they can't spontaneously redevelop the huge number of genes necessary to reproduce; they don't even have the opportunity to do so. It's completely safe. They're just DNA injectors, and we're exploiting the side-effects that the viruses normally bundle with their (deleted) reproductive payloads. In this case, healthy cells are smart enough to fend off the infection, but cancer cells aren't, which is why they're cancerous in the first place.
      • by wanzeo ( 1800058 )

        Well let's agree that the article is really light on information, but assuming you are able to remove enough of the viral DNA to prevent reproduction, how are you going to produce the billions of them required for treatment? You can't make them individually, so they have to be capable of reproduction to be useful.

        However, I think they are using the word "engineered" too liberally. They basically just want to inject a particular viral strain which happens to kill a higher percentage of cancerous cells than n

        • Here's [nap.edu] a textbook on viral engineering; it's paywalled if that sort of thing bothers you, but the details can be found in there. You're certainly right that the methods involved are broadly messy, start with reproduction-competent vectors, and that some bits of the machinery get left behind, but like the cancer itself, the lack of the ability to reproduce prevents them from being able to exploit evolutionary mechanisms to support their survival. I guess the virus might be able to reproduce if the patient ha
          • by wanzeo ( 1800058 )

            start with reproduction-competent vectors, and that some bits of the machinery get left behind.

            So they would splice an engineered gene into the genome which somehow shortens the viral DNA with each generation. So the viruses get busy infecting cells in the lab, and after some point, the cells begin bursting with a bunch of viral pieces instead of whole functional viruses. After enough time, all the functional viruses have been used up, and all you have left is viral fragments. What are you going to use to attack the cancer cells?

            I expect we'll even see synthetic virus printers some day.

            Yes, but at that point you just manufacture virus sized machines which d

            • Actually, wait, sorry. This is all very silly. It's a lot simpler to engineer viruses, and I can't believe I forgot what I was doing. Here's how it works.

              1. You find a host cell, in which you have full control of the genome, which is similar enough to the target organism that it can generate the virus (yeast is often sufficient.)

              2. Take the inserted block of DNA from some infected tissue. This includes a header (promoter) that the host cell will read and use to generate new copies of the viral genome, which

  • Bacteriophage (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Hokan ( 11666 ) on Wednesday March 21, 2012 @04:07PM (#39432413) Homepage

    TFA makes it seem like the concept of pitting viruses against bacteria was developed in the '50s, but research has been ongoing for much longer, at least from 1896.

    See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bacteriophage [wikipedia.org]

  • At least Will Smith will be immune. We'll all be dead or vampire-like creatures, but at least Will Smith will carry on the torch of humanity. I can now sleep at night.

  • Didn't we learn anything from the "I am Legend" film.

  • unless you are a Big Pharma who wants to make $ out of the treatment. The reovirus and about 10 other viruses already attack cancer cells in this way. There have been clinical trails, somewhere in Canada, I believe. If you catch reovirus naturally, you will perhaps feel under the weather for a week or so. On the other hand, the clinical trials that inject reovirus into the tumor have a high rate of complete remission of the cancer. So rethink the usefulness of the FDA : it makes it impossible for 'natu
  • This was discovered by a doctor, William Coley [wikipedia.org] in the 19th century, and used effectively by him to treat a number of cancers. It has been called Coley fluid or Coley Toxins. [wikipedia.org]
  • Okay, I gotta ask what I always ask with these kinds of stories. If I get liver cancer (or whatever). how long do I have to hold out before the local hospital can offer a tailored virus to cure me?

To do two things at once is to do neither. -- Publilius Syrus