Treating cancer with the measles vaccine? Well, sort of.


Yes, the cancer in a 49-year-old woman's body seems to have been successfully destroyed with the help of an experimental treatment involving the measles virus. No, it wasn't a massive dose of measles vaccine, explains Cancer Research UK.

I wanted to post this piece because that's a detail I got wrong after reading the original story about this woman, published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Instead, the woman was injected with genetically modified measles virus, specifically tailored to the job of attacking cancer. We don't know yet whether the treatment really did help destroy the cancer in this woman's body (it's worth noting that another woman, given the same treatment, didn't have as much success). But, even if it did work, the treatment isn't based on vaccines. The measles vaccine could not have possibly worked this way.

Briefly, it involves treating patients with viruses that have been genetically engineered to specifically infect cancer cells, rather than causing the particular illness that they usually bring. When injected into the body, the viruses seek out and destroy the tumour cells, multiplying inside them to create even more cancer-killing viruses. At least, that’s the theory.

To date, researchers have created oncolytic viruses from a number of different types of modified virus, including the herpes virus (which causes cold sores), pox viruses and adenovirus (common cold). But while tests in cancer cells grown in the lab and animals have been remarkably successful, this promise unfortunately hasn’t yet translated into success in clinical trials with actual cancer patients.

The idea of treating cancer with modified viruses is absolutely fascinating, but — to reiterate something that I did try to get across in the original post here — it's still highly experimental. This recent example is the first time it's really seemed to work in a live human and there's a lot more research that needs to be done before we even know if this treatment is something that is actually effective, let alone before it's available to the public.