Researchers who want to treat patients with blood cancer have turned to an unlikely ally to wipe out leukemia cells: a non-replicating virus.
In a breakthrough study, a team of Canadian researchers used virus-derived particles to target the blood cancer cells, successfully killing human cancer cells in a laboratory setting and eradicating the disease entirely in mice.
Though scientists have employed viruses to fight cancer in the past, what makes the recent research out of Ottawa so intriguing is that the particle -- derived from a non-replicating virus -- is highly potent yet safe, since it does not have the potential to spread.
"It's no longer a virus, in essence," Dr. David Conrad, a senior co-author of the study and a hematologist at the Ottawa Hospital, told The Huffington Post. "It retains this potent killing activity, but it's extremely safe."
The team of researchers started with a natural virus, then paired it down in the lab to a particle that possesses the killing properties of the virus, without the nasty side-effects. When leukemia cells are exposed to the particle, the cells basically undergo a process that leads them to commit suicide, Conrad said.
So far, the team hasn't seen any major side effects (in the mice) at the effective doses.
While the therapy drastically reduces cancerous tumors, it also leaves behind an anti-cancer memory within the immune system that has the potential to prevent relapse. Comparing the method to chemotherapy, Conrad explained that the most effective chemo treatments contain some kind of component that performs a similar function in order to make the immune system remember the cancer.
Conrad speculated that the treatment could eventually be employed to fight other types of cancer, such as brain or breast, because of the unique nature of the particle.
"It can enter a number of cancer cells very efficiently and go about its business," Conrad told HuffPost. "A lot of cancer cells -- no matter what the type -- have messed up wiring and do not know how to respond to this perceived threat."
With their findings published in the peer-reviewed Blood Cancer Journal in July, the team is currently on track to begin human clinical trials in the next two years, pending approval of their preclinical tests. If all goes as planned, Conrad expects to release data in the next four years on how the virus-derived particle performs in the human immune system.
Watch a video of the virus-derived particles rapidly killing Leukemia cells above. (Clip courtesy of David Conrad, Cory Batenchuk and Fabrice Le Boeuf/Ottawa Hospital Research Institute)