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.

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Why Is Polio Still Around?

Dec. 29, 2012

By Medical Discovery News

An Afghan health worker administers the polio vaccine to a child during a vaccination campaign in 2010 in Kabul, Afghanistan

After plaguing humans for thousands of years, polio is on the verge of being wiped out. In 1988, the virus was endemic in 125 countries, but today it exists in only three: Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. With scientists so close to eradicating polio, their work exhibits a renewed sense of urgency.

Polio, also called poliomyelitis or infantile paralysis, is caused by a virus that can infect nerves and lead to partial or complete paralysis. Between the 1840s and 1950s, polio epidemics occurred worldwide, paralyzing or killing half a million people each year.

All that changed in the 1950s with the development of polio vaccines. Over twenty years ago, the World Health Assembly resolved to wipe polio from the Earth by 2000. They got pretty close. During that time, healthcare workers immunized over 2 billion children. 

Since humans are the only reservoirs for polio, there’s an opportunity to eliminate the disease yet that hasn’t happened. Why? Inadequate funding is a major barrier. For example, an 18-month action plan devised by the World Health Organization needs $945 million to be fulfilled.

Logistics and politics are even bigger obstacles. Getting the vaccines to children in remote areas is complicated or made impossible by geopolitics, many of which are anti-U.S. or anti-Western. The Taliban has banned vaccinations in northern Pakistan, an area it controls, to protest American drone strikes. In one of the safe havens inside Pakistan, a local community worker helping with the campaign against polio was shot and killed. Just days before, two gunmen shot a Ghanaian doctor working for the WHO and his Pakistani driver, who were also participating in a polio vaccination campaign. 

Some of the violence is driven by a distrust of humanitarian and healthcare workers. A polio vaccine program in Nigeria eight years ago was undermined by rumors that the vaccine was unsafe and part of a nefarious plan to sterilize Muslim children.  

The CIA exacerbated this distrust by using a fake vaccination campaign to locate Osama Bin Laden. It planned to use DNA obtained through administering a Hepatitis B vaccine to identify Bin Ladin’s children and therefore find the terrorist. The ruse enraged locals, along with critics who blame the CIA for damaging the fragile relationship healthcare workers built with local communities in the anti-polio campaign and other vaccine programs. Furthermore, community workers in these areas became even greater targets of terrorist organizations.

Such complications leave polio-free countries at risk for imported cases. Chad, a country bordering Nigeria, has documented a few cases from people crossing the shared border. An outbreak in China in early 2012 that paralyzed 17 children and killed two is believed to have come from Pakistan.

Already this year, over 100 cases of polio have been reported, although they could have been avoided with a 50-cent vaccine. A valiant effort by multiple nonprofit and governmental agencies is now underway to rid the last vestiges of this disease.

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