In an April 2014 press release, a Mayo Clinic hematologist announced that a massive dose of the measles vaccine had eradicated blood cancer in a 49-year-old woman. Stephen Russell, M.D., Ph.D., author of the research paper and co-developer of the therapy, said the woman experienced a complete remission from myeloma, a cancer of plasma cells in the bone marrow, and has been clear of the disease for over 6 months. “This is the first study to establish the feasibility of systemic oncolytic virotherapy for disseminated cancer,” he says. Russell and his team also treated another cancer patient with the measles vaccine, and although this patient did not respond as well, her cancer did show signs of improvement.
For these 2 patients, the Mayo Clinic physicians administered the highest possible dose of the measles vaccine, enough to inoculate about 10 million people. The measles vaccination the average patient receives at his or her doctor’s office will not kill cancer cells. The researchers published the study of these 2 patients because they were the first 2 investigated at the highest possible dose and had lower immunity to the measles because of their previous limited exposure to the virus. The 2 patients had also run out of other treatment options.
Medical scientists have been aware of the cancer-fighting properties of the measles virus since at least the 1950s. In the 1970s, there were reports of natural infection with the measles virus that led to the regression of certain types of cancers in African children. These and other similar reports inspired medical researchers to explore the oncolytic properties of viruses. One of the benefits of using oncolytic viruses is that they destroy cancer cells but leave nearby healthy cells intact.
The Mayo Clinic has been at the forefront of oncolytic virus research in the US. In fact, it was the first American institution to use the measles virus as cancer therapy, most notably to treat the very lethal and most common type of primary malignant brain tumor, glioblastoma multiforme. The American Brain Tumor Association says glioblastoma represents about 17% of all primary brain tumors and about 60% to 75% of all tumors associated with astrocytes, the star-shaped cells that act like glue to serve as the supportive tissue of the brain.
In earlier research under Mayo’s previous Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) grant, medical oncologist Evanthia Galanis, MD and colleagues from the departments of Oncology and Orthopedic Oncology at the Mayo Clinic discovered that the measles vaccine causes brain tumor cells to fuse together and form cells with multiple nucleases. These multinuclear cells accumulate and trigger apoptosis, otherwise known as programmed cell death, a natural phenomenon that causes cells to die. In other words, the researchers tricked the cancer cells into clumping together to form unhealthy cells the body could easily kill. The newest research by Dr. Russell builds on the work of Dr. Galanis and others to cause cancer cell clumping and apoptosis with virotherapy.
Medical researchers still have a long way to go before virotherapy becomes a viable option for cancer patients but the discoveries at the Mayo Clinic do give hope to cancer patients and their families.
- Allen C, Paraskevakou G, Liu C, et al. Oncolytic measles virus strains in the treatment of gliomas. Expert Opin Biol Ther. 2008; 8(2): 213-220. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2756986/#!po=6.25000.
- Glioblastoma. American Brain Tumor Association website. http://www.abta.org/brain-tumor-information/types-of-tumors/glioblastoma.html.
- Mayo Clinic first to show virotherapy is promising against multiple myeloma. News Release. Mayo Clinic website. April 14, 2014. http://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/pb/assets/raw/Health%20Advance/journals/jmcp/jmcp_pr89_5_2.pdf.
- Russell SJ, Federspiel MJ, Peng K, et al. Remission of disseminated cancer after systemic oncolytic virotherapy [published online ahead of print May 13, 2014]. Mayo Clin Proc. http://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196%2814%2900332-2/pdf.
- Update on the measles virus, a novel therapy for glioblastoma. Mayo Clinic website. http://www.mayoclinic.org/medical-professionals/clinical-updates/neurosciences/update-measles-virus-novel-therapy-glioblastoma.