Connecting the dots between measles and cancer treatment

July 2, 2014 in Personalized Healthcare  •  By Miles Varn
People may have questions about news reports that measles vaccines are treating cancer.

If you or someone you love is living with a malignant disease, you may follow the news about emerging innovative treatments. For example, researchers recently reported that special formulations of measles and polio viruses are powerful enough to kill cancer cells. Does that mean these are the cures we’ve been waiting for?

These latest reports are generating a lot of excitement because of the research’s potential to find new solutions for diseases that are hard to treat, as well as the possibility of using targeted therapies that reduce the likelihood of side effects. However, as exciting as the prospects are, it’s important to understand what the new scientific findings say, and what has to happen before patients can undergo these innovative treatments.

The idea behind the measles and polio virus formulations started when researchers from several institutions performed experiments with mice acting as models of human medullablastoma, a disease that accounts for up to 20 percent of childhood brain tumors. Treating the tumors with specially engineered strains of measles virus left the cancerous cells dead and the mice cancer free.

That research led to human trials. In one recent trial performed at the Mayo Clinic, two test subjects who were both diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer, were given an injected dose of a highly concentrated, genetically modified, lab-engineered measles virus. One patient’s cancer went into remission for nine months after the treatment, while the other experienced a two-month remission.

Further trials are underway, and the researchers hope to test the effects of this treatment on other cancers, such as glioblastoma multiforme and malignancies of the ovaries, lungs, head, neck and other organs.

What do these results mean for you?

While it’s exciting to see any treatment that might potentially cure cancer without the need for chemotherapy or radiation, there are several important caveats here. First, these viral treatments are only suitable for patients whose immune systems are too weak to fight off the measles. In other words, not all patients are good candidates for this therapy, and factors such as disease type and stage can affect whether viral treatments are appropriate. Second, this approach is still in its experimental stages, and there’s no established certainty for how effective and safe they are, or when they’ll be available on the market.

It can be very difficult to interpret news headlines and information on the Internet about new treatments. When dealing with a serious medical condition, your personal health advisor can be a valuable partner who can provide you with evidence-based research on clinical trials and potentially connect you with an active clinical trial that may be testing an alternative treatment option.