In a proof of principle clinical trial, Mayo Clinic researchers have demonstrated that virotherapy — destroying cancer with a virus that infects and kills cancer cells but spares normal tissues — can be effective against the deadly cancer multiple myeloma.
Stacy Erholtz was out of conventional treatment options for blood cancer last June when she underwent an experimental trial at the Mayo Clinic that injected her with enough measles vaccine to inoculate 10 million people. A medical first — a woman with an incurable form of cancer has had all signs of living cancer cells eradicated from her body for at least 6 months. What’s more, it was accomplished in a single treatment. And the magic potion — was the measles virus.
The 50-year-old Pequot Lakes mother is now part of medical history.
The cancer, which had spread widely through her body, went into complete remission and was undetectable in Erholtz’s body after just one dose of the measles vaccine, which has an uncanny affinity for certain kinds of tumors.
Erholtz was one of just two subjects in the experiment and the only one to achieve complete remission. But the experiment provides the “proof of concept” that a single, massive dose of intravenous viral therapy can kill cancer by overwhelming its natural defenses, according to Dr. Stephen Russell, a professor of molecular medicine who spearheaded the research at Mayo.
Multiple myeloma is a cancer of plasma cells in the bone marrow, which also causes skeletal or soft tissue tumors. This cancer usually responds to immune system-stimulating drugs, but eventually overcomes them and is rarely cured.
In their article, the researchers explain they were reporting on these two patients because they were the first two studied at the highest possible dose, had limited previous exposure to measles, and therefore fewer antibodies to the virus, and essentially had no remaining treatment options.
Oncolytic virotherapy – using re-engineered viruses to fight cancer – has a history dating back to the 1950s. Thousands of cancer patients have been treated with oncolytic viruses from many different virus families (herpesviruses, poxviruses, common cold viruses, etc.). However, this study provides the first well-documented case of a patient with disseminated cancer having a complete remission at all disease sites after virus administration.
The second patient in the paper, whose cancer did not respond as well to the virus treatment, was equally remarkable because her imaging studies provided a clear proof that the intravenously administered virus specifically targeted the sites of tumor growth. This was done using high-tech imaging studies, which were possible only because the virus had been engineered with a ‘snitch gene’ — an easily identifiable marker — so researchers could accurately determine its location in the body.
More of the MV-NIS therapy is being manufactured for a larger, phase 2 clinical trial. The researchers also want to test the effectiveness of the virotherapy in combination with radioactive therapy (iodine-131) in a future study.
Measles virus (MV) has been a longtime bane of the human race. Once described by Rhazes (10th century Persian physician) as “more dreaded than smallpox,” it remains globally one of the leading causes of death among young children. In the 5 years before the introduction of the 1963 measles vaccination program, there were over 4 million cases of measles reported in the United States, and nearly twice as many deaths were attributed to measles as to polio infections during that same period.3 Yet for all the misery MV has caused and continues to inflict on mankind, it now appears that a genetically engineered version of the virus may be on its way to becoming an effective treatment for another deadly human malady, late-stage incurable myeloma.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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