Pancreatic cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related mortality in the United States, with over 43,000 deaths being estimated for the year 2017. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), over 8 percent of the people who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer have a 5-year survival prognosis, although the NCI, as well as the American Cancer Society, emphasize that many people live longer and no two patients are alike. As with most forms of cancer, the sooner pancreatic cancer is detected, the better the outlook for the patient. When caught early, pancreatic cancer tends to be localized, which facilitates its management.
The need for better, more effective therapies for pancreatic cancer remains dire, especially because it develops and spreads so rapidly, often resisting treatment. In order to avoid drug resistance, researchers are looking into using mutated viruses to target pancreatic cancer cells more precisely. With this purpose in mind, a team of researchers led by Dr. Gunnel Halldén, from Queen Mary University, set out to genetically modify a flu virus. To test its efficacy against cancer, the scientists used a genetically modified mouse model of pancreatic cancer, which involved pancreatic cancer cells from human patients. The first author of the paper is Dr. Stella Man, from the Barts Cancer Institute at Queen Mary, and the findings were published in the journal Molecular Cancer Therapeutics.
Destroying cancer cells from within
Unlike healthy pancreatic cells, pancreatic cancer cells contain a molecule called alpha v beta 6. Dr. Halldén and her colleagues genetically altered the flu virus to contain an extra protein that binds to alpha v beta 6. When the flu virus gains access to the cancer cell, it multiplies within the cell, eventually making it burst and destroying it. Then, as the virus replicates, the cycle is repeated, ultimately killing off the tumor completely. The team tested this new approach in the mouse model with human cancer cells and found that the modified virus successfully stopped the cancer from growing.