Stacy Erholtz didn't have many options to treat her blood cancer left when she agreed to being injected with the equivalent of 10 million doses of measles vaccine. Hours later, she was vomiting and feverish. Months later, her cancer was gone. This landmark result—if replicated in larger clinical trials—could open the door to new therapy that uses viruses to target cancer cells.
Viral therapy is an old idea with some success in mice, but this is the first clearly documented result of it working in humans. "It's a game changer," one of the researchers told the Washington Post.
A key problem with cancer therapies has always been distinguishing healthy cells from cancerous ones, and viruses are exquisitely good at recognising specific cells to attack. Erholtz's cancer, called myeloma, allows the buildup of malignant blood plasma cells in her bone marrow. Measles viruses happen to have the ability get into bone marrow.
Her doctors at the Mayo clinic injected her with a genetically engineered version of the weakened virus used in measles vaccines. The dose needed to be huge, so that her immune system would not kill the viruses before they could kill the cancerous cells. That exposes a weakness of this specific therapy: it probably could not work in patients with immunity to measles already. Erholtz and the one other patient in this trial did not, but most of us in the U.S. and UK are vaccinated for measles at a young age. Symptoms from the measles infection itself disappeared after a few weeks for the two patients.
The other myeloma patient also did not achieve complete remission like Erholtz, possibly because her tumours formed in the muscle rather than the bone. And of course, the result would need to be confirmed in larger trials to prove it wasn't a one-time fluke. Such a clinical trial is expected to start in September.
Other researchers in the field have deployed different viruses to treat different cancers, such as a variant of the common cold virus for pancreatic cancer. It'll be years before viral therapies for cancer become routine—if the results even hold up in clinical trials—but this suggests we could eventually deploy viruses for the good of our health, too. [Mayo Clinic Proceedings via Washington Post]
Top image: Measles vaccine via AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan