The “cure for cancer” is a never ending pursuit. One of the reasons why finding a cure has been so difficult is not only because it’s a complicated disease to treat but also because cancer is not just one disease.
There are many different types of cancer, each with its own unique causes and characteristics. That means for each type of cancer, different solutions have to be developed.
However, this may all change soon because a promising cure for potentially all types of cancer has been discovered by an Australian company called Imugene Ltd. (1)
The immune-oncology company announced that it’s about to enter the clinical stages of developing a cowpox-based oncolytic virus technology that may be useful in treating and killing any type of cancer in the human body (2).
Using a virus to treat a disease may sound strange but it’s actually not something medical scientists haven’t done before. A similar principle is at the base of all modern vaccines. That process started in 1796 when Edward Jenner (3) discovered that milkmaids who had been exposed to cowpox didn’t get sick from smallpox even during the great smallpox plague in Europe. Edward took a sample of cowpox and inoculated a child with it which successfully prevented smallpox because the child’s immune system had become resistant to all pox diseases by adapting.
Of course, this is just a basic example, and the process used by Imugene is much more complicated.
The process – penetrate, replicate, explode
The oncolytic virus has been developed by professor Yuman Fong at the City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center in LA, California (4). Professor Fong is the scientific founder of Imugene and is a world-renown oncologist.
Oncolytic viruses are actually naturally-occurring and self-replicating, and they are capable of penetrating cancer cells and cause them to explode. Fong and his team have managed to create a genetically modified version of the virus called CF33. Interestingly enough, CF33 is based on cowpox.
CF33 is chimeric vaccinia – it has a short-life span while also multiplying quickly so that it can spread from one cancer cell to another. It should also be noted that CF33 doesn’t penetrate the patient’s genome or cause any genetic mutations itself.
So far, petri dish trials have shown that the virus is capable of destroying almost all cancer types. There have also been promising results in mice.
The main cancer types that will be tested in humans once human trials begin will be invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC), melanoma, triple-negative breast cancer, lung cancer, gastric cancer, bowel cancer, and several others.
The CF33 treatment works in two steps:
- The targeted destruction of cancer cells by the virus.
- The activation of the immune system in order to improve the chances for survival.
“There was evidence that viruses could kill cancer from the early 1900s when people vaccinated against rabies had their cancer disappear, they went into remission,” Professor Fong said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph (6). “The problem was if you made the virus toxic enough to kill cancer you were worried it would also kill man.”
However, professor Fong said cowpox -- which proved to successfully protect people from smallpox 200 years ago -- is known to be harmless in humans.
Human trials set to begin in 2020
The first human trials will be in the U.S. with a group of 30 volunteers, all with advanced solid tumors (7). There’s still a long way to go and there are many possible risks and uncertainties yet to face. As Professor Sanchia Aranda, the chief of Cancer Council Australia points out, cancer cells can mutate very quickly when they are under attack.
“When it is tested in a human we will see whether the immune system mounts a defense against the virus and knocks it off before it gets to the cancer or there could be nasty side effects,” she said. “Cancer cells are very clever, they are true Darwinians that mutate to survive and there is a likelihood they will evolve to become resistant to the virus as they do now to become resistant to chemotherapy and immunotherapy.”
It remains to be seen how successful this treatment will be. There have been many cancer treatments over the years – chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery, hormone therapy, cryoablation, and others, but most of those were usually highly straining and risky for the patient, often leading to a greatly decreased quality of life.
As a form of immunotherapy, hopefully, CF33 will prove to be both a more effective and less harmful type of treatment.