Doctors cure woman's tumors with re-programmed measles virus

Doctors at the Mayo Clinic used the measles virus to eliminate a 50-year-old woman's cancer in a first-of-its kind experimental treatment. The Washington Post reported that patient Stacy Erholtz underwent the treatment as a last-ditch measure in her decade-long fight against the blood and bone marrow cancer myeloma.

Erholtz, who hails from Pequot Lakes, MN, had undergone round after round of chemotherapy and two stem cell transplants, but the cancer still raged through her body. One tumor on her forehead had destroyed a ridge of bone and was pressing against her brain. She and her kids gave the tumor a name, Evan.

At the Mayo Clinic, a team led by researcher Stephen Russell injected Erholtz with 100 billion units of measles virus -- enough to inoculate 100 million people. The technique had been tried with success on mice and rats, but never on humans.

Her body reacted violently. Within five minutes, she had a splitting headache. Two hours later, her temperature skyrocketing to 105 degrees, Erholtz began to vomit and shiver uncontrollably.

The symptoms passed, however, and Russell told the Post Thursday morning, “Thirty-six hours after the virus infusion was finished, she told me, ‘Evan has started shrinking.’”

The forehead tumor vanished over the course of several weeks, and the other tumors in her body followed suit.

"It's a very simple concept, really," Russell explained in a Mayo Clinic video. "Viruses naturally come into the body and they destroy tissue."

In a paper published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, Russell explained that his team re-engineered the measles virus to program it to fight cancer.

Once inside the body, the measles viruses bind to the tumors and use them to replicate their own DNA. The cancer cells eventually explode to release more copies of the virus. The procedure has the added benefit that the invading viruses trigger the patient's immune system, which then goes to work against the remaining crippled cancer cells.

Erholtz's case, said Russell, taught researchers two things, “No. 1, you need a really big dose and No. 2, the patient needs to not have an antibody to the virus.”

A second patient who received the treatment, however, did not get the same results. Some cancer researchers and scientists reacted to the Mayo team's news by saying that now the treatment must be tested in randomized clinical trials.

Tanios Bekaii-Saab, a researcher at James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute in Ohio, told the Post, "Unless we get to the third stage of development, we are cautiously optimistic."

“What this all tells us is something we never knew before – we never knew you could do this in people,” said Russell. “It’s a very important landmark because now we know it can happen. It’s a game changer. And I think it will drive a development in the field.”

Clinical trials of the treatment are expected to start in September. Researchers hope that someday the measles virus will be routinely used as a "single-shot cure" for myeloma and pancreatic cancer.

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