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Fun Science FRIEDay – Virus be good!

“The era of the oncolytic virus is… here.” Stephen Russell, Cancer researcher and haematologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnessota

…. and let me be the first to welcome our new virus overlords!

 Viral-based cancer therapy: T cells (orange) are recruited to attack malignant cells (purple). (Photo credit: Dr. Andrejs Liepins/SPL)

Viral-based cancer therapy: T cells (orange) are recruited to attack malignant cells (purple). (Photo credit: Dr. Andrejs Liepins/SPL)

Last week the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made a decision that received little fanfare, but has huge implications for modern medicine and how we approach cancer treatment in the US. That decision? The FDA granted their approval for a genetically engineered virus to be used to treat cancer. That virus was the herpesvirus called talimogene laherparepvec, and its use is for the treatment of melanoma lesions in the skin and lymph nodes. This huge decision makes it the first oncolytic virus to receive market approval and could pave the way for more oncolytic viruses to enter the “market.”

Scientists are creating viruses that naturally hone in on tumor cells while simultaneously boosting the body’s immune system to fight cancer. (Photo credit: Thom Graves)

Scientists are creating viruses that naturally hone in on tumor cells while simultaneously boosting the body’s immune system to fight cancer.
(Photo credit: Thom Graves)

So whats an oncolytic virus you say? Basically it’s a virus that is used to kill cancer cells. The premise is based on a simple approach, the virus infects the cancer cells triggering an immune reaction to wipe out the malignant cells. Goodbye chemotheraphy? The immune system is a lethal killer; a testament to its efficiency to protect the human body is the relative health we all walk around in.

Using viruses as a mechanism to bioengineer the human body to destroy cancer cells is not a new phenomenon.  Physicians made note of cancer patients who went into spontaneous remission after contracting a viral infection more than a century ago. However, it took decades of research for humans to “harness” this biological power and control its application. The early work with adenoviruses had some serious flaws that hastened death or resulted in other cancers in the initial trials; those were mostly done as gene therapy replacements. Many of the issues have been resolved and the future looks bright for cancer treatment, and the application of viruses in humanities fight against cancer.

Happy Fun Science FRIEDay!!