May 122011
 
B0007656 Lung cancer cell

Most forms of cancer still must be spotted visually to be diagnosed. But if a newly devised virus can do the job, it could track down cancer cells too small or well hidden to be seen in scans. It might also help shrink tumors, too.

The virus in question is a herpes virus, modified genetically to act only on cancer cells.

Using mice, researchers injected the altered virus, which then “deliver[s] genetic information that induces a known blood biomarker for cancer to be secreted by cancer cells,” Timothy Cripe, a physician in the Division of Oncology at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and co-author of a new paper outlining the technique, said in a prepared statement.

The biomarker, Gaussia luciferase, is easy for researchers to spot via urine or blood tests. The virus might also help to diminish any existing tumors, the study authors reported, making it a so-called theragnostic compound. Altered versions of smallpox and herpes viruses are already in clinical trials to help battle back cancer.

The virus made cancer cells produce detectable levels of the biomarker in 90 percent of subject mice with bone cancer, muscle cancer, Ewing’s sarcoma and other forms of malignant tumors. It even raised glowing flags in mice that had microscopic amounts of cancer cells hiding in their kidneys, suggesting that in humans it might work to root out tumors that are just millimeters across.

The researchers do raise concerns about possible immune responses to the virus, and even cancer-free mice showed low levels of the biomarker. Cripe noted that “there is certainly room for further refinement.” But, he added, “If ultimately validated in human trials, it could have implications for people with known cancer risk or who have had a history of cancer.” It could also be used to help track the progress of treatment.

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