The Battle Between Cancer and Herpes

The Royal Melbourne Hospital. It´s an impressively large building from the outside, and the glass façade reflects the brilliant blue spring sky on sunny days. Though mainly my obsession with the hospital can be explained by pointing that the food they serve in their – admittedly rather small – cafeteria isn´t half bad either. Rumors have it the Melbourne Brain Center right across the road of the Royal Parade serves better food much cheaper, but I haven´t increased the sample size enough yet to taste a significant difference. And I prefer the bustling, intense atmosphere of the hospital to the comparably quiet chatter of a research institute tearoom.

Walking through and past a hospital everyday has raised my awareness to biomedical research more than working in a biomedical lab ever had – and probably could have. I come face-to-face with the people in need of the treatments we are desperate to develop. The desperation to gain more funding – a selfish desperation at best – turns into the desperate need to help others. One of the topics, where research has possibly been able to do just that, is skin cancer.

For all of you who missed the headline or skipped the article in your local paper, the US FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approved a new therapy in the fight against skin cancer. Taking lab results into the clinic is always exciting, but using GMOs (genetically modified organisms) turns the entire thing into a biomedical thriller. The approach is simple, and quite old: Cancer cells don´t like viral infections. It was noted in the 1800s (I told you, it was old) that patients suffering from an unruly batch of growth-obsessed cells would go into remission after the infection, the cancerous cells killed off by the virus. The therapy method of using an overly active immune system against cancer cells is termed: immunotherapy. Doctors would occasionally use immunotherapy by purposefully infecting their cancer patients with a virus – sometimes with a unwanted quicker lethal end.

The treatment, which has now passed clinical trials and is ready for its general medical application in the US, is based on a genetically engineered Herpes – virus. What makes this virus such an impressive tool against cancer cells, is its ability to infect healthy cells – but not kill them. Cancerous cells however, are not so lucky. T-VEC (the disappointingly dull name given to this potent anti-cancer agent) infects them and is able to destroy them. T-VEC also produces a protein, which goes flying into all direction when the cancer cell explodes, and binds to the neighboring cancer cells. This protein sends the immune system into overdrive, attracting killer cells and using this second method to kill the cancer.

So the next time you dump someone because they have contracted Herpes, think about it what you´re about to do. They could be saving your life, for all you know.

HerpiBot

References:

Andtbacka, R. H. I. et al. Talimogene laherparepvec improves durable response rate in patients with advanced melanoma. J. Clin. Oncol. doi:10.1200/JCO.2014.58.3377

Killock, D. Skin cancer: T-VEC oncolytic viral therapy shows promise in melanoma. Nat Rev Clin Oncol. 2015 Aug;12(8):438. doi: 10.1038/nrclinonc.2015.106. Epub 2015 Jun 16.

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