Can Measles Save Us from Cancer?

Nov. 14, 2014

By Medical Discovery News

Red blood cells

Today, the words measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) sound foreign to children. But before a vaccine prevented these three viruses, three to four million American children contracted measles, a possibly serious respiratory disease that can lead to pneumonia, and 40 percent of them required hospitalization each year. The vaccine is 95 percent effective, and in 2012 only 55 cases of measles were reported in the U.S., mostly due to traveling abroad.

Now, a study has demonstrated that the measles virus might actually be a useful treatment, for cancer. It sounds strange – using one serious disease to fight off another – but scientists have found a way to direct the cell-killing powers of viruses to cancer cells. The use of viruses to destroy cancer cells, called oncolytic virotherapy, has been investigated since the 1950s. Other viruses such as herpes and pox have also been used as treatments for other diseases, but the measles virus’s potential to fight cancer is very promising.

The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., utilized a modified measles virus called MV-NIS. To create this version of the virus, scientists inserted a gene for the protein sodium iodide symporter. This protein helps concentrate iodine in the human thyroid. Therefore, when this genetically engineered measles virus infects tumor cells and replicates, it produces this protein that binds to and concentrates iodine.

This is important because researchers can then inject a patient with radioactive iodine, which shows up on a 3-D imaging technique called SPECT-CT. Using the images, they can observe where cancer cells are at any site in the body. The engineered virus attacks and kills tumor cells but leaves normal cells alone. This works because the virus detects a protein called CD46 on the surface of a cancer cell, then enters the cell and replicates itself, killing the cancer cell.

The first clinical trial consisted of only two myeloma patients who had exhausted all other treatment options. Each patient was injected with one ultra-high dose (the equivalent of 100 million doses of the vaccine) of MV-NIS intravenously.

The results were astounding. The number of myeloma cells in both patients dramatically declined. One patient became cancer free and has remained so, while the other patient’s life was prolonged during this late-stage cancer. Advanced myeloma affects plasma cells, a type of white blood cell that produces antibodies, and is difficult to treat so this result is unprecedented.

MV-NIS is not yet ready for widespread use, but scientists will continue to build off this newfound virotherapy. Already, they plan to experiment with using another radioactive iodine molecules to additionally attack the tumor cells, uniting virotherapy with localized radiation treatment for myeloma. Stay tuned for updates on this promising discovery.

For a link to this story, click here.

A Vaccine Hero

Oct. 11, 2013

By Medical Discovery News

Despite the value of their work, scientists’ accomplishments don’t make them rich, and their talents generally don’t make them famous. For example, ever hear of Maurice R. Hilleman? Probably not, but most people are familiar with the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine he invented.

Hilleman may have saved more lives than any other scientist in the 20th century – he created or contributed to the development of more than 25 vaccines! Vaccines are designed to safely stimulate the immune system to develop resistance to diseases caused by viruses and bacteria.

About .1-.2 percent of children with measles, a highly contagious respiratory infection, die and an estimated 15-30 percent suffer complications like pneumonia. Hundreds of children died from measles every year even though the Food and Drug Administration had approved a measles vaccine in 1963. So Hilleman and a pediatrician named Joseph Stokes worked to minimize the significant side effects of the measles vaccine, which included fever and rash. They developed a scheme where children were injected with the vaccine in one arm and gamma globulin in the other. Gamma globulins are proteins extracted from blood that will temporarily stimulate the immune system. He eventually produced a much safer strain of measles virus called Moraten that is still used in today’s vaccines. But Hilleman did not stop there.

Like measles, mumps is also a viral infection, but it causes swelling of the parotid glands, the two largest salivary glands located in each cheek over the jaw and in front of the ears. Complications are not rare and include meningitis. Before the vaccine, mumps was one of the leading causes of childhood deafness. Mumps has also been reported to induce miscarriages in pregnant women. Hilleman started developing the mumps vaccine when his own daughter, Jeryl Lynn, developed mumps at age five. He isolated the virus from her, and named the vaccine strain derived from that virus after her.

Around 1963 there was a rubella outbreak in Europe. Another contagious viral infection, rubella is a usually mild disease that causes fever and rash in children and young adults, although it is less infectious and severe than measles. But rubella can cause birth defects if acquired by a pregnant woman. Up to 90 percent of infants born to mothers who had rubella during the first 11 weeks of pregnancy developed congenital rubella syndrome. This can cause growth retardation, cataracts, deafness, congenital heart defects, defects in other organs, and mental retardation. The highest risk to the fetus is during the first trimester, but exposure later in pregnancy also is dangerous. From 1963 to 1965, 11,000 babies died and another 20,000 developed birth defects due to rubella. Hilleman was responsible for refining the rubella vaccine and making it safe. At his request, an improved live rubella vaccine superseded his own. 

These three vaccines were combined to create the familiar MMR vaccine in 1971, which now has an added varicella vaccine to protect against chickenpox. Vaccination remains the most effective way to prevent diseases and their potentially serious effects.

For a link to this story, click here.

A Party To Avoid

By Medical Discovery News

April 28, 2012

A Party to Avoid

While many parents are taking their children to birthday parties on the weekends, some will be hauling their children to “pox parties.” Believe it or not, that’s short for chicken pox. Anyone can find these parties on Facebook, sponsored by groups like “Chicken pox party line” or “Find a pox party.” Their goal is to bring together parents interested in exposing their children to the wild virus, Varicella zoster, rather than inoculate them with the chicken pox vaccine.

While the vast majority of parents may find this outrageous, a subset of parents believe natural infection with the virus leads to more vigorous immunity than the protection their children would get from the vaccine. But underlying this is a continued distrust of vaccines among some parents in America.

Public health experts say these parents are not only misguided, they’re downplaying serious risks that come with a full-blown infection. Chicken pox causes hundreds of blisters that, when scratched, can lead to life-threatening bacterial infections. Additionally, the virus can cause encephalitis, an infection of the lining of the brain. Children who get chicken pox also face the risk of developing shingles as adults, when the dormant virus comes back as a highly painful nerve disorder.

Incredibly, the interest for natural infection has spurred postings on Facebook from people selling $50 lollipops that have been licked by children with chicken pox. Some offer infected clothing or towels by overnight delivery, with no shortage of interest from responding parents.

Law enforcement has cracked down on the offers, since shipment of infectious substances across state lines is a federal offense. Public health experts question whether the chicken pox virus can survive shipment, but warn that other serious bacterial diseases might prevail, such as staph or strep throat.

Parents skeptical of vaccines need to weigh the risks of infection, which are far more serious against the few, mild side effects of a vaccine. The chicken pox vaccine, introduced in 1995, significantly lowers the risk of infection. Those who are vaccinated and do become infected have a much milder form of the illness and are less contagious. These children also face a lower risk of developing shingles later in life.

The Centers for Disease Control indicates severe reactions to the vaccine are extremely rare and only those with certain health risks are advised not to get the vaccine. It’s still always a good idea to consult a pediatrician first.

Before the chicken pox vaccine was introduced, four million people were infected every year, including over 10,000 who were hospitalized. Of those, 150 died. However, the vaccine has cut the chicken pox death rate by 97 percent.

Scientists are monitoring whether wiping out chicken pox will increase the risk of shingles in adults who had the virus when they were younger. Evidence suggests periodic exposure to the virus from sick children acts as a natural immunity booster for adults who had the illness. But health experts point out that a shingles vaccine can head off that risk.

For a link to this story, click here.