Turning to Viruses as Supercharged Cancer Therapies
While viruses often bring to mind disease, some viruses are not only harmless, but can be harnessed and transformed into cancer-fighting therapies.
Oncolytic viruses are viruses that can attack and kill cancer cells. Because they replicate efficiently in cancer cells but not in normal cells, they offer tremendous potential for new cancer therapies. Some of these viruses are already making their way into human clinical testing, with one approved for use in melanoma patients.
Dr. Maya Shmulevitz, Canada Research Chair in Molecular Virology and Oncotherapy, works with oncolytic viruses in the hopes of coming up with new therapies to treat cancer. In particular, she and her research team are studying one called “reovirus.”
Reoviruses are infectious agents, transmitted by oral routes. But because they are generally harmless, and unusually stable, they act as anticancer agents. Shmulevitz’s goal is to improve reovirus as a cancer therapy that can offer personalized cancer treatment by providing different “flavours” of oncolytic reovirus according to the specific cancer.
By gaining a better understanding of reovirus, Shmulevitz and her team also hope to answer fundamental questions such as: Why does it replicate in cancer cells, but not in normal cells? How can it be tweaked to promote cancer cell killing? Why are some cancers more susceptible to it than other types of cancers?
Shmulevitz anticipates that within 20 years, therapeutic viruses will be a viable health solution. She hopes that by better understanding and optimizing the use of oncolytic viruses today, we can ensure the success of virotherapy in the future.