Thanks to influenza and the yearly flu season that wreaks havoc on your health, viruses have earned a pretty bad reputation (and rightly so). But what if someone told you that viruses very well could one day save your life. Would you warm up to them a bit?
According to one study, viruses are an estimated to be at least 1 billion years old. To survive and thrive for such a long period of time means that they developed ample survival techniques and “hardware.” By studying their methods and genetic makeup we are now able to modify their design or directing their behavior in a new type of biotechnology called Virotherapy. It has three main divisions: Immunotherapy, vector based gene therapy, and anti-cancer.
While virotherapy has been studied and observed since the 1950’s, it is still in its infancy when it comes to explaining the mechanics of individual viruses. With an estimated 320,000 viruses capable of infecting mammals, the potential is huge but research and testing is tedious and slow moving. The most commonly used strains are: Hepatitis, HIV, Measles, Influenza.
The most important thing to keep in mind when learning and reading about this new research is that patients are not being infected with the original, unadulterated virus. Scientists take the virus and sort of “neuter” it. They usually remove the elements that cause the sicknesses and let the virus act more as a special vessel or mini-machine to transmit information and action into healthy cells. In immunotherapy and the anti-cancer subset of virotherapy, immune cells are infected with the virus but instead of inhibiting them they actually make them into “hyper-sensitive radar machines” that are able to identify diseased or cancerous cells in the body.
Overall, the results do not have giant success rates and the exact methods of action and long term effects are still unknown, but the mere possibility of a more accurate and dynamic therapy is fueling a new wave of research and opportunity.
While there is not a “cure” for cancer there certainly are some promising results in several studies:
- Brain Cancer Trial Success with Polio Virus
- Brain Cancer Success with Influenza Virus
- Using the Herpes Virus for Melanoma
- Leukemia Treatment with HIV
- Ovarian cancer vaccine
- Prostate cancer virotherapy
Early Hopes: One of the first studies to show dramatic success in 1974 in Japan. 90 terminal cancer patients, ranging from gastric and pulmonary to uterine cancer, were given non-attenuated mumps virus as immunotherapy (to boost the immune system). 37 of the 90 patients had complete regression, 42/90 had a decrease in size or growth suppression and 11/90 had no response. While their methods were a bit iffy and perhaps counter to modern standards these results bolstered ideas of viral potential.