Viruses modified to selectively kill cancer cells

Children being treated for cancer
Copyright: Panos

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  • New study focused on the cell protein CPEB which has contrasting expressions
  • CPEB1 is present in healthy cells while CPEB4 is found in cancerous ones
  • The modified virus attacks the variant CPEB4 while avoiding healthy tissues

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[MANILA] Oncolytic viruses (viruses that preferentially infect and kill cancer cells) can be genetically modified to attack tumour cells without affecting healthy tissue, says a new study.  
“There are several oncolytic viruses under development, but there is one approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of metastatic melanoma, one of the deadliest cancers,” Cristina Fillat, scientist at IDIBAPS and co-leader of the study published (16 March) in Nature Communications.

“Current treatments provide limited benefit, thus, there is the need for new treatments.”

Cristina Fillat, IDIBAPS 


“What makes our approach different is the mechanism by which the virus acquires the oncoselectivity,” Fillat explains to SciDev.Net.
In the study, researchers from IDIBAPS and the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB), both in Barcelona, focused on the different expressions of a type of protein, CPEBs, in normal and tumour tissues. While CPEB4, is highly expressed in cancer cells and necessary for tumour growth, CPEB1 is expressed only in normal tissue. 
The researchers took advantage of this double imbalance to make a sophisticated oncoselective virus that only attacks cells with high levels of CPEB4 and low levels of CPEB1, meaning that it only affects tumour cells while ignoring healthy tissues.
This approach was studied in the most common type of pancreatic cancer, which, according to Fillat, is the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide. Recent estimates indicate that pancreatic cancer will become the second leading cause of cancer-related mortality by 2030. 
“Current treatments provide limited benefit, thus, there is the need for new treatments,” says Fillat.
While preliminary data suggests that the new approach may also work in glioblastoma (aggressive brain tumour) and colorectal cancer, it could be applied to any cancer that displays a tumour imbalance in CPEB4/CPEB1, says Fillat. “Ultimately, the approach will be for adults, but the eligibility criteria should be determined once clinical trials start,” says Fillat. “We are not there yet.”

Alan Melcher, team leader of translational immunotherapy at The Institute of Cancer Research, UK, welcomes the new strategy. “The Barcelona researchers have found a clever way to make viral immunotherapy more targeted, which may ultimately allow cancer treatments that harness a wider range of viruses, some of which might otherwise not be suitable,” he tells SciDev.Net.
But, Melcher warns, it’s still early stage research in mice. “So, it’s important we see further developments in the science and evidence of how this might work in people, before we get too excited,” he says. 
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.