Can Measles Save Us From Cancer?


Most of us in this country got an MMR vaccine which eradicated measles here. Until the vaccine was developed, the virus used to infect half a million children in the US every year. But today, a study is using the measles virus to kill cancer cells.

The approach of using viruses as anti-cancer treatment isn't new. Since the 1950s researchers have investigated this potential, called oncolytic virotherapy. This newest approach with an engineered measles virus looks promising.

Called MV-NIS, researchers modified this virus by inserting a gene that makes a protein called the sodium iodide symporter. This protein normally helps concentrate iodine in the human thyroid. So when MV-NIS infects cells, this protein also binds iodine. That way, when radioactive iodine is injected into a patient, the infected cells become visible under certain imaging techniques.

This allowed scientists to follow the virus as it left healthy cells alone, but targeted tumor cells. Ultra high doses of the virus was injected into two women with end stage myeloma, an incurable blood cancer. It works because the virus uses as receptor a protein found on the surface of myeloma tumor cells. This allows the MV-NIS virus to enter, replicate and kill them.

Both women in the trial showed a rapid decline in myeloma cells. One became cancer free and remains in remission. The cancer returned in the other woman but the treatment prolonged her life.

The researchers plan to treat a larger group of patients in a second clinical trial. They say it's too early to declare their treatment a cure, but it's certainly promising.

More Information

Taming Measles Virus to Create an Effective Cancer Therapeutic
Mayo Clinic —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. 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.