A remarkable new study used an injection of infectious measles to cure a woman's cancer, offering renewed hope to terminally ill patients. The new cancer research was published online Wednesday in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings. According toThe Star Tribune, the new discovery offers "proof of concept" that one massive intravenous dose of live and infectious measles can kill cancer.
Measles demonstrated its ability to overwhelm the cancer's natural defenses. Dr. Stephen Russell, a professor of molecular medicine who lead the Mayo Clinic's measles injection research team, told the Tribune in an interview, "We've known for a long time that we can give a virus intravenously and destroy metastatic cancer in mice. Nobody's shown that you can do that in people before."
According to the Journal of Laboratory and Clinical Medicine, cancer therapy using live, replicating viruses has expanded rapidly over the past decade. In the 1970s, while treating children with cancer, doctors noticed that if those children came down with a natural case of measles, the children's cancer regressed.
As reported by Medical Discovery News, that got doctors interested in considering measles as a potential cancer therapy. Earlier this year, an article in BMC Cancer showed measles to be a potentially effective weapon against medulloblastoma, the most common childhood brain cancer. An article published in Breast Cancer Research and Treatment stated that measles therapy "has significant anti-tumor effect against human breast cancer cells in vitro." That research demonstrated success for the first time in aggressive breast cancer xenograft models after therapy with live measles.
In the groundbreaking new research published Wednesday, though, measles therapy was able to give 50-year-old Stacy Erholtz from Minnesota a new lease on life. She was one of only two test subjects in the cancer study. Stacy's cancer was within the bone marrow. She was given an injection with enough live measles to vaccinate 10 million people. A measles vaccine generally contains a very small sample of a weakened measles virus. Stacy's cancer had spread throughout her entire body, but after being injected with the measles virus, her cancer became virtually undetectable. "Without trying to hype it too much, it is a very significant discovery," Dr. John C. Bell of the Centre for Innovative Cancer Research told the Tribune in an interview.
Ten-thousand infectious units of the measles virus are found in a measles vaccine. The two patients in the newest study were given one million infectious units at first. The level that saved Stacy's life and eradicated her cancer was 100 billion infectious measles virus units. The measles virus binds to cancer cells and use them as hosts to replicate. Once measles binds to the cancer cells, they eventually explode and then release the virus.
One issue with previous measles virus therapy studies was the high rate of anti-measles antibodies in humans given the high rate of measles vaccination. Measles vaccines had almost eliminated measles from the United States. According to the CDC, 3-4 million cases of measles occurred annually in the years just before the measles vaccine. Of those cases of people who contracted measles in the U.S., 0.015 percent of them died, according to U.S. historical data available in the government's archives of public record. Due to vaccination, most people in the U.S. now have antibodies against measles even if they never actually had measles.
In earlier cancer research done with measles, existing antibodies caused the measles therapy to be ineffective. However, scientists have discovered ways around this challenge. Multiple Myeloma, a bone marrow plasma cancer, was examined in a 2010 Mayo Clinic study which was published in the journal Molecular Therapy. Using "systemically administered cells" as measles virus carriers, those researchers were able to prolong the survival of mice with cancer, even if they already had antibodies against measles. Further research into measles therapy as a weapon against many different types of cancer is expected as a result of this newest research.
[Photo via the National Cancer Institute]