If a virus could cure cancer, would you get infected?
February 16, 2009 2:27 PM   Subscribe

In the background behind attention-grabbing headlines about famous (and wannabe-famous) cancer patients, a quiet revolution may be on the brink of changing oncology.

Targeted cancer therapy and gene therapy have been mentioned in the blue before, but oncolytic viruses are the hot young thing. For consideration in cancer treatment, an virus must replicate in and kill a high number of exclusively cancer cells, while sparing healthy tissue. A Philadelphia-based company called Neotropix has won awards for its research into a prime contender - the Seneca Valley Virus. It has been the subject of Phase I adult clinical trials, with Phase II adult and Phase I pediatric clinical trials to start this year. SVV has advantages over some other contenders in that it is a naturally occurring (lest we create a race of mutant zombies) organism and studies so far suggest it is not harmful to healthy human cells. While a number of other oncolytic viruses are being examined, NTX-010 seems able to treat a very wide range of common and rare forms of cancer, some of which are now considered uniformly fatal. In addition, unlike some other tested viruses, it can travel through the bloodstream to treat metastatic and not just local disease. Compared to the side-effects and late effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatment, and because many of the cancers ideal for treatment with an oncolytic virus have no surgical options, this may be the next big breakthrough.
posted by bunnycup (42 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Damn. Is this shaping up to be the twenty-first century, or what?
posted by Michael Roberts at 2:30 PM on February 16, 2009 [3 favorites]

This sounds promising and I hope it turns out to be the breakthrough cancer patients need. My fingers are crossed for this and while I'm at it, please let me express my best wishes and thoughts for you, your husband and your daughter while you fight this disease.
posted by Salmonberry at 2:37 PM on February 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Phage Therapy is about a hundred years old, having been used by the Soviets for years, though not for cancer to wit. It's sort of interesting to see how while the US dumped all its resources into development of antibiotics, the Russians put all their eggs into phage therapy. All the while, the cold war kept any information from being shared across the divide.
posted by The White Hat at 2:38 PM on February 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

I've been talking about this recently with people. Since we're on the subject... THC in very high doses is claimed to effectively stop cancer . Rick Simpson from Canada has allegedly been treating people with potent and highly condensed THC oil ( you introduce in to the body slowly as medicine, so you don't get mega stoned from it), and consume it over several weeks. The THC attacks the cancerous cells but doesn't harm healthy cells. If this is true, and it appears to be based on real results not just fluff, then the word should be spread.
posted by Liquidwolf at 2:42 PM on February 16, 2009 [8 favorites]

A Philadelphia-based company called Neotropix has won awards for its research into a prime contender - the Seneca Valley Virus.

And they patent it. And charge ridiculous amounts for it. And people keep dying of cancer.

Here's praying the virus mutates to be infectious, freely traveling the world, curing people of cancer.
posted by Jimbob at 2:52 PM on February 16, 2009 [10 favorites]

Well, Jimbob, they didn't pay good money to research this for nothing.
Well, actually, if usual practices in medical research are any indication, the research was done in a college lab using federal grants, and then taken private by the researchers, but hell, if one can't make a profit from taxpayer money anymore.. What are you, a communist?
posted by vivelame at 2:59 PM on February 16, 2009

AAV was previously touted as a naturally occurring anticancer virus. Here's a good reference book if you really want to learn more.
posted by benzenedream at 3:01 PM on February 16, 2009

As the parent of a kid with cancer, I am surely biased Jimbob. But profit is the only motivator for a corporation, and research costs a LOT of money, and so I WISH that more companies would make boatloads of money off of this research, so that it could have happened fast enough to save the life of my 9-month-old daughter, who has had a life expectancy of a couple days for the past week.

And if profit from cancer treatment bothers you, donate to St. Jude, which does not charge families for childrens' cancer treatment. We paid nothing during our attempt to save my daughter. It takes them about $1.3m/day to stay open, and about $100k of that is reimbursed by insurance. Families are not asked to pay a cent.

Now the sarcastic question is: If they turn it into a vaccine, will you give it to your children? Ha ha, I kid.
posted by bunnycup at 3:03 PM on February 16, 2009 [18 favorites]

You and your daughter are in my heart tonight, bunnycup.

To see cancer cured in my lifetime...such an amazing thought, it's almost unimaginable. So many varieties, so many complications. But to stop the suffering cancer brings upon us...well that's something to fight for.

Get ready, everyone, relay for life is coming around soon. You're all invited to the Second Life relay, and bunnycup, I'd be happy to run the first lap with you.
posted by Hildegarde at 3:30 PM on February 16, 2009

Killing cancer with viruses? What's next, leeches?

This is really very cool, great post
posted by heathkit at 3:51 PM on February 16, 2009

Great post. I hate to nitpick, and maybe it's just me, but I would have preferred a link to the cool stuff in the main post, not just {more inside}. I almost missed this because I tend to skip over celebrity anything. Thanks though, very cool.
posted by msalt at 4:33 PM on February 16, 2009

Can I ask what good the patent will do here? If both SVV and AAV are naturally occurring, what's to stop a company from 'growing' it and selling it to people/clinics not as a treatment, but as a commodity with which they could 'systematically infect' their patients/themselves?
posted by datacenter refugee at 4:43 PM on February 16, 2009

I am sorry, bunnycup, and I wish you, your family, and your baby as much joy as possible during her time here.

Thanks for reminding me about St Jude's; one of the radio stations in my hometown used to (and probably still does) a massive fundraiser for St Jude's every year, in true PBS-during-pledge-week fashion. It used to annoy the crap out of me. But I hope that they are still out there, raising money, because it is an incredibly worthy cause.

As for curing cancer, yes, a thousand times, yes. The problem I foresee with a company licensing a patent for the SVV (or whatever it may be that does cure cancer) is this: what happens when we create a two-tier world, one tier that can afford the cancer vaccine or virus or whatever and one that cannot?

We already caught glimpses of the issue with the HPV vaccine, but I think if there is one cure-all for cancer, societal inequities are just going to explode. There's no flashpoint like 'cancer, averted, but only if you can pay.' Here's hoping that governments are able to take care of the costs for their citizens.
posted by librarylis at 4:47 PM on February 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

(Thanks for the advice msalt...my first fpp, so I really was not sure the best way to go - take up too much space on the front page, or leave a leading line that did not give a great hint as to the real subject of the post.)

I BELIEVE from discussions with our oncology team, but am not certain, that the patent aspect is in the delivery method and dosage schedules. I also BELIEVE, but am not certain, from my law school memory that natural viruses, plant matter, and other native things can't be patented.
posted by bunnycup at 4:48 PM on February 16, 2009

librarylis, to your point: One thing I did not adequately address in the post because it seemed tangential and long-winded, is that the effects of SVV are produced with ONE SINGLE ADMINISTRATION of the virus - versus weeks or years of chemo treatment with hospitalization for severe side effects. Overall, I would expect that would mean a reduced cost as compared to other treatments - not necessarily because the companies would charge less, but because the associated medical needs would be likely to be less lengthy and consuming.
posted by bunnycup at 4:51 PM on February 16, 2009

datacenter refugee: SVV and AAV would be classified as biologics under FDA rules, much like protein therapeutics. Companies making the virus would have to get FDA approval for their manufacturing process and satisfy the FDA requirements for each lot of virus produced, which is not a trivial or cheap task (basically, you have to prove that the virus hasn't mutated or changed significantly from the strain that you did clinical trials with). An analogous situation is the flu vaccine - influenza strains are easy to come by and kill with formalin or another inactivating agent, but you don't see "flu by night" vendors selling vaccines as a commodity.
posted by benzenedream at 4:53 PM on February 16, 2009

Liquidwolf. The articles I've read on the subject seemed to suggest that the presence of THC in the bloodstream somehow interfered with your body building blood vessels to the tumors which starved them to death. It even killed existing ones.

A study was done with human lung tumors implanted into mice. They had shrunk to 50-60% of their original size by the end of the study. The best source I could get for this was Science Daily.

The mechanism you mentioned is supposedly the THC triggers the cancer cell's suicide reflex (apoptosis). One of the key differences between cancer cells and healthy cells is that cancer cells have to be destroyed by massive damage whereas healthy cells reflexively explode when they are damaged to prevent them from becoming cancerous in the first place. I'm afraid my limited access to this info has made it difficult to verify. If I'm not mistaken this happened with Glioma cells (brain cancer). I'm still looking for a citation from either a trusted news source or a direct link to the original study. It was reported on science daily as well but
posted by Pseudology at 5:00 PM on February 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

In a post about the struggle against a horrible disease where science is the tool we use to fight, do you think you could avoid giving the "Astrology Examiner" a link?

Best wishes to you and your daughter bunnycup - I only hope we one day win the fight for everyone.
posted by edd at 5:00 PM on February 16, 2009

err... oops, premature post. The Glioma study didn't make it onto science daily. But it does make a great youtube video.
posted by Pseudology at 5:02 PM on February 16, 2009

Thank you bunnycup.
posted by Pseudology at 5:12 PM on February 16, 2009

In the mid to late 90s my mother was dying of pancreatic cancer, and a company called Onyx was working on this with adenovirus. They were very optimistic then. Around the same time, there was a lot of buzz about the use of anti-angiogenesis drugs, even Thalidomide. They found some benefit, but nothing like what they had hoped.

Maybe this one will work.
posted by dilettante at 5:16 PM on February 16, 2009

While we're on cancer inhibitors don't forget Inositol Hexaphosphate (a.k.a IP6) as a potential cancer cure or at least a chemotherapy reinforcement.

Iron chelation seems sound in theory (neoplastic cells have a stupidly high iron requirement compared to regular cells) and some of the research has been very promising. And since it's found in almost every high fibre food on Earth, at the very least you can try using it as an inexpensive dietary supplement and see how it goes.
posted by Talez at 5:46 PM on February 16, 2009

I have a crazy theory (that might be debunked with someone with knowledge) in the "crazy ass theory" section of mind.

Back in the old days when people used to grind their own wheat to make flour to make bread you'd typically use the whole grain (with this IP6) intact. Effectively it was a natural anti-oxidant that kept any neoplastic growths in check. As we became more advanced at this farming and baking stuff and introduced things like white flour we started stripping this nice little antioxidant away from our regular diet and with the elimination of many infectious diseases along with improved hygiene and antibiotics and BAM. Here comes your "one third of people die from cancer" statistic.

I dunno. I see so many novel compounds found in nature. It's like there's something to cure everything somewhere out there.
posted by Talez at 6:06 PM on February 16, 2009

Talez, I don't disagree with you that there are lifestyle/diet changes that have an impact, but I also think it's important to maintain a perspective that with MOST cancers, the risk goes UP, dramatically, with age and therefore as life expectancy is extended, cancer rates are increased. In addition, even with "younger risk" cancers, treatment and modern management with improvements in nutrient intake and other health make growth to adulthood, and therefore reproduction and thus transmission of cancer genes (BC genes as an example), more common. I'm not trying to shoot down your thoughts, just complement them - I think increases in cancer have multi-faceted causes.
posted by bunnycup at 6:12 PM on February 16, 2009

Yeah. Like I said it's a crazy ass theory. It probably needs to be fleshed out as one little antioxidant couldn't possibly be the cause.
posted by Talez at 6:25 PM on February 16, 2009

Thank you benzenedream!
posted by datacenter refugee at 6:46 PM on February 16, 2009

I also BELIEVE, but am not certain, from my law school memory that natural viruses, plant matter, and other native things can't be patented.

You're right, in that naturally occurring strains can't be (although I do understand some people have been going around sequencing the DNA of things and patenting that...) - but if you modify an organism (for example, breeding a new variety of wheat or rice, I'm not even talking scary genetic manipulation here), you can.

And even if they are just testing a completely natural, non-modified virus, you can bet they'll patent whatever process they use to mass produce it.

I am talking ahead of myself here, of course, and best luck to them, but the recent history of treatments for major diseases doesn't bode well. It feels like blackmail - "You're dying of cancer...we've got a cure! How much are you willing to pay us?"
posted by Jimbob at 7:13 PM on February 16, 2009

So, in 2,000 years are we going to have these sorts of viruses in the human DNA because we've used them so extensively on ourselves?
posted by Ironmouth at 7:37 PM on February 16, 2009

This is very fascinating. I love the concept of using naturally occuring viruses to kill cancer cells and cancer cells only. It sort of reminds me of fly larvae who, when sewn up inside an infected wound, eat only necrotic tissue and leave the healthy human flesh behind. In this case, we're making greater strides and we can rest assured in knowing that if this experiment goes horribly wrong, Will Smith will work tirelessly to save humanity.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 10:37 PM on February 16, 2009

Wow this is an amazing post, I hadn't heard of it before. My thoughts are with you bunnycup.
posted by saucysault at 4:24 AM on February 17, 2009

BAM. Here comes your "one third of people die from cancer" statistic.

Also, BAM. Increased consumption of white bread in the 50's wasn't the only factor in rising cancer rates.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 4:47 AM on February 17, 2009

I used to do a lot of work with NIH researchers who were working on these targeted therapies. While claim no special expertise in anything that involves having to wear a labcoat, I had to compile and collect the researcher's publications, reports, results etc. and translate them into English, or at least English that dipshits like me could understand. After seeing these things time after time I am pretty confident that we are very, very close to cures (multiple) for both diseases that are caused by excessive cellular growth (cancer) and death (parkinsons). There were cures that attacked only the cancer, the reverse that attacked anything not healthy, and, if Bush didn't kill them, methods to rebuild damage with stem cells. These guys were all in advanced stages of developing their methodologies. It's amazing stuff!
posted by Pollomacho at 4:55 AM on February 17, 2009

Back in the old days when people used to grind their own wheat to make flour to make bread you'd typically use the whole grain (with this IP6) intact.

I don't want to completely shatter your theory because whole grain is a good thing, but people have been milling flour as long as there has been such a thing as bread. What they haven't been doing is chemically bleaching the flour.

Also, how do people that don't eat finely ground wheat flour yet have rising cancer rates fall into this theory?
posted by Pollomacho at 5:06 AM on February 17, 2009

Here's praying the virus mutates to be infectious, freely traveling the world, curing people of cancer.

You should probably buy a few dozen TiVos so you won't run out of Today show reruns.
posted by oaf at 5:22 AM on February 17, 2009

Also, BAM. Increased consumption of white bread in the 50's wasn't the only factor in rising cancer rates.

Lake effect snow over upstate New York caused some some seriously radioactive clouds to drop in that area. Those bastards pretty well blanketed the country with that shit, other than the extreme west coast of California. I read a book recently (can't recall the title) which tracked each above-ground explosion, its kiloton or megaton force, and where the clouds went, and fell. The composite map was mostly a black blob covering 2/3s of the US. Lubbock Texas got dosed. So did Dallas. Las Vegas, of course, got hit pretty hard, but Utah got by far the worst of it. People were dropping like flies there for a good 20 years, and probably are still.

We nuked ourselves but good.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:05 AM on February 17, 2009

Damn, but I hope this actually works. I don't care how many people get rich off it. Just let it work.
posted by AdamCSnider at 7:24 AM on February 17, 2009

Surely. FIRST we have to make a cancer cure AVAILABLE. Then truly a community morality and compassion obligates us to work to make it AFFORDABLE.
posted by bunnycup at 7:33 AM on February 17, 2009 [3 favorites]

Very good post, with a lot to think on here.

Coincidentally, just last night I was reading this: Healing Heat: Harnessing Infection to Fight Cancer

"In April 1891 an Italian immigrant, Mr. Zola, presented at New York Hospital with a large sarcoma tumor in his neck and an egg-sized metastasis in his right tonsil. He had been operated on twice before but was in hopeless condition. He could hardly speak or swallow and was unable to eat solid food. His life expectancy was, at the very most, a few months. He had nothing to lose by undergoing an experimental treatment.

Since erysipelas was so hazardous, the hospital was reluctant to host Coley’s experiment, so it was performed in a private apartment. Colleagues at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, now part of Columbia University, prepared the bacteria. Three applications were delivered over three weeks, with minor success. Zola’s temperature rose only slightly, and he showed no sign of full-blown infection. Coley tried a fresh preparation and a larger dose. Within hours, Zola developed severe chills, headache and vomiting. His temperature did not reach what one could expect from a full-blown erysipelas infection; it did not exceed 102 degrees Fahrenheit. Both tumors diminished in size. About one month after the treatment began, Zola could eat again.

Via a friend, Coley obtained fresh and potent bacteria culture from the leading German bacteriologist, Robert Koch. That fall, he again treated Zola, whose temperature that time rose above 104 degrees, with nausea, vomiting and severe pain. The infection almost killed him, but within two weeks, the neck tumor was not observable. The tonsil tumor stopped growing. Zola was in excellent health when Coley saw him four years later.

During the following two years Coley attempted to infect 12 patients who had inoperable cancer. He failed to induce a full-blown infection in four and succeeded in eight. All eight responded. Six had partial tumor remissions. Two showed full remission. But two patients died from infection. So Coley abandoned living cultures and turned toward what today we would call a bacterial extract. "

posted by anastasiav at 8:55 AM on February 17, 2009

Here's praying the virus mutates to be infectious, freely traveling the world, curing people of cancer.

Sure there is some monsterism involved, but heck, no more cancer.
posted by Pollomacho at 10:49 AM on February 17, 2009

I missed the men first walking on the moon by a couple of years, so I'm hoping that I can get at least one of the bad-ass I-remember-when credentials for this in the very near future:

"I remember when they finally cured cancer."

That would rule.

Though "I remember when they finally cured cancer... with pot" would be so fucking we-told-you-it-shouldn't-be-illegal good as to be beyond words, that I kind of hope it's that one that works out.
posted by quin at 3:14 PM on February 17, 2009

Bunnycup, I am so sorry for your loss.

But, thank you for posting this information, while it doesn't look it will help renal cell cancer, I can still hope a cure will be found for me.

The best I can do for children with cancer is help raise money for research, and I do by shaving my head for St. Baldrick's Foundation, which is a nonreligious charity that provides money for cancer research. Since I am a cancer survivor, now, this means even more to me, especially as I see more and more children losing the battle.
posted by SuzySmith at 5:13 PM on February 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

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