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PCRF-funded research uses flu-like virus to attack pancreatic cancer

25 January 2018

A flu-like virus has now been used in experiments to successfully inhibit the growth of pancreatic cancer, according to an early study by Queen Mary University of London, funded by PCRF.

The study, led by Dr Gunnel Halldén at Barts Cancer Institute, suggests that the new technique could potentially become a promising new treatment for patients with the aggressive disease, and could be combined with existing chemotherapy to improve chances of survival.

Dr Gunnel Hallden

Co-author Dr Stella Man said: “We’ve shown for the first time that pancreatic cancers can be specifically targeted with a modified version of the adenovirus. 

“The new virus specifically infects and kills pancreatic cancer cells, causing few side effects in nearby healthy tissue. Not only is our targeting strategy both selective and effective, but we have now further engineered the virus so that it can be delivered in the blood stream to reach cancer cells that have spread throughout the body.

Dr Stella Man “If we manage to confirm these results in human clinical trials, then this may become a promising new treatment for pancreatic cancer patients, and could be combined with existing chemotherapy drugs to kill persevering cancer cells.”

The reasons behind pancreatic cancer's poor survival rates include late diagnosis of the disease and the cancer’s rapid development of resistance to current therapies. To avoid drug resistance, the use of mutated viruses has emerged as a promising new strategy for attacking cancers in a more targeted way.

A promising new strategy for targeting treatments

The research, published in the journal Molecular Cancer Therapeutics, took advantage of a unique feature of pancreatic cancer cells – the presence of a specific molecule called alpha v beta 6 (αvβ6), which is found on the surface of many pancreatic cancer cells but, crucially, not on normal cells.

The team modified the adenovirus to display an additional small protein on its outer coat that recognises and binds to αvβ6-molecules. Once the virus enters the cancer cell, the virus replicates, producing many copies of itself prior to bursting out of the cell and thereby destroying it in the process.  The newly released viral copies can then bind onto neighbouring cancer cells and repeat the same cycle, eventually removing the tumour mass altogether. 

The researchers tested the viruses on human pancreatic cancer cells, which had been grafted onto mice, and found that they inhibited cancer growth.

The concept of using modified viruses has previously shown promising results in various cancers including brain, head and neck, and prostate. The researchers say that their new virus - the result of a collaboration with the University of Cardiff - is more specific and efficacious than previous viral versions, and has the added advantage of being able to co-operate with chemotherapy drugs that are currently used in the clinic.

Maggie Blanks, PCRF's CEO said: “It’s exciting to see research we’ve funded at Barts Cancer Institute since 2009 – both in modifying viruses as a potential treatment for pancreatic cancer and progressing knowledge about alpha v beta 6 – come together in this study with such positive results. Developing more effective treatments for pancreatic cancer becomes more urgent every year as the incidence of the disease increases, and we hope to see this research progressed further.”

As with all potential new therapies, advancement towards human clinical trials will require more time as lead researcher Dr Halldén  explains:  “Currently, we are seeking new funds to support further development into clinical trials within the next two years. With this funding in place, early phase trials will usually take about five years to determine whether or not the therapy is safe and effective.”

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