While I’ve written in the past about viruses that can cause cancer, today I want to introduce the concept of using viruses to selectively kill cancer cells. These types of viruses are called oncolytic viruses, meaning that they kill (-lytic) cancer cells (onco-) but not normal healthy cells.
This makes them potentially very powerful tools in treating cancers that don’t respond well to established approaches of chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery. This approach is still in its infancy, but the potential of viral oncology remains promising.
The first moment a virus infects a cell it has to deal with multiple cellular defenses. From surviving highly acidic conditions in endosomes to evading the host enzymes that can digest its very genetic code, an invading virus must navigate and eventually subvert the functions of a host cell. This intricate molecular dance has played out time and again for millions of years and modern science is just beginning to understand and appreciate the intricacy of these steps.
A recent paper published in Nature Immunology suggests that there may be even more steps in the virus-host dance than we had imagined. Outside of science fiction, I would have dismissed this mechanism until I read the paper “RNA-mediated interference and reverst transcription control the persistence of RNA viruses in the insect model Drosophila” by Goic and others (1).
One of my very favorite aspects of being a scientist is being right on the cutting edge of modern research. I have the pleasure of working in an environment where new discoveries are made daily that span from the mundane to the revelatory. Today I want to take the time to write about a recent paper that for me came to my attention that falls solidly in the revelatory category.
It may surprise many of you to know that some vaccines currently being used are actually composed of a living virus that actively replicates in your body in order to generate immunity. I’ve written about one of these live vaccines before on this site: the oral polio vaccine (OPV). These are effective vaccines that mount a long-term adaptive immunity to the pathogen in question. This is done by immune cells that break down the virus and present small parts known as antigens to immature immune cells, which then mature in response to the antigen and are then capable of mounting an immune response to this same challenge in the future.