Scientists used a gene-hacked virus to fight deadly tumors

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Researchers used a gene-hacked virus to kill cancer cells.

Cancer sucks. That’s why doctors and researchers are trying everything they can to find a cure or treatment for it. Some of those approaches are highly unconventional. New research recently published in the journal Science Translational Medicine certainly falls into that category.

A team of researchers found that a gene-hacked virus can be used to target solid tumors. The approach bypasses the defenses of such tumors that typically render anti-cancer medication useless.

Right now, everyone is tired of hearing about viruses but this is an example of how they could be used for good.

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Fighting Fire with Fire

Humans typically try to avoid viruses. Just look at the measures currently in place to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. Although most viruses are inexcusably bad, scientists are able to gene-hack certain types to change their traits. In other words, the altered viruses don’t make patients sick. They instead perform some other function while infecting cells.

A team from the City of Hope Hospital in California, a well-known cancer research center, engineered an oncolytic virus to produce a protein called CD19. Since it isn’t a medication, the virus is able to sneak past a tumor’s defenses and infect the cancerous cells.

Once inside, the virus hijacks the cells and forces them to start producing CD19. At this point, T cell therapies can be initiated to attack the tumor. Thanks to the CD19 proteins, the body’s hunter-killer T cells are attracted to the area and can do their job to eradicate the tumor.

Dr. Yuman Fong, the City of Hope oncologist who engineered the virus, says, “We designed this oncolytic virus to do what it does so well. It entered the cancer cell and used the cell’s own machinery to replicate itself, and engineer the cancer cells to express a truncated form of the well-known CAR T cell target, CD19.”

To be clear, CD19-directed T cell therapy is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It can be used to treat certain types of blood cancers. The team hopes that combining the therapy with the genetically engineered oncolytic virus could make it an effective approach to treat almost any type of solid tumor.

Treatment for the Future

So far, the team has tested its approach in both mice and in petri dishes. Researchers are currently designing a clinical trial for humans that could take place sooner rather than later because the T cell treatment is already approved for use.

Interestingly, the treatment might be beneficial even after it is used to eradicate a tumor. Researchers found that it also seems to enhance the body’s immune system, thus providing protection against future tumors of the same type.

Study co-author Anthony Park says, “The immune system built a memory response to the tumor. Once it eradicated tumors, following the initial combination treatment, the mice were shielded against tumor recurrences.”

Finding a cure for cancer won’t happen overnight. However, the creative and innovative approaches of today’s research teams have humanity closer than ever to ending the killer disease.

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