Modified flu virus used to fight growth of cancer cells

The flu virus is being used in the battle against cancer. Picture: TSPL
The flu virus is being used in the battle against cancer. Picture: TSPL
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A modified flu virus has been successfully used in experiments to inhibit the growth of pancreatic cancer.

The groundbreaking study with backing from the charity Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund, suggests that the new technique could potentially become a treatment for patients with the aggressive disease and could be combined with existing chemotherapy to improve chances of survival.

In Scotland, pancreatic cancer incidence rates have increased by 12 per cent over the past ten years with around 790 people diagnosed with the disease each year. It is particularly aggressive and has the lowest survival rate of all cancers – fewer than 5 per cent of patients diagnosed survive for five years or more.

Reasons behind poor survival rates include late diagnosis of the disease and the cancer’s rapid development of resistance to current therapies. To avoid drug resistance, the use of mutated viruses has emerged as a new strategy for attacking cancers.

Dr Stella Man, from Barts Cancer Institute at Queen Mary University of London, part of the team who worked on the study which was led by Dr Gunnel Hallden said this was the first time it had been shown that pancreatic cancers could be specifically targeted with a modified version of the flu.

She added: “The new virus specifically infects and kills pancreatic cancer cells, causing few side effects in nearby healthy tissue. Not only is our targeting strategy both selective and effective, but we have now further engineered the virus so that it can be delivered in the blood stream to reach cancer cells that have spread throughout the body. If we manage to confirm these results in human clinical trials, then this may become a promising new treatment for pancreatic cancer patients, and could be combined with existing chemotherapy drugs to kill persevering cancer cells.”

The team modified the common flu virus to display an additional small protein on its outer coat that recognises and binds to a specific molecule called alpha v beta 6. Once the virus enters the cancer cell, the virus replicates, producing many copies of itself prior to bursting out of the cell and destroying it in the process.

The newly released viral copies can then bind onto neighbouring cancer cells and repeat the same cycle, eventually removing the tumour mass altogether. Researchers tested the viruses on human pancreatic cancer cells, which had been grafted onto mice.