Cancer of the blood had spread throughout Stacy Erholtz’s body when it was devastated by a massive dose of the measles virus. The 50-year-old woman from Pequot Lakes, Minnesota, opted for an experimental trial at the Mayo Clinic last June when she was out of conventional treatment options. Erholtz was one of two people injected with a single, gigantic dose of the measles virus – a dose was enough to inoculate 10 million people. It was engineered by researchers to be specifically toxic to cancer cells by attaching to the cells and using them to replicate themselves. The cancer cells explode, destroying them and releasing the virus. The body’s immune system is then called in to do its job and attack the virus to heal the body.
According to Mayo Clinic Professor of Molecular Medicine Dr. Stephen Russell, the experimental procedure confirms that one huge dose of intravenous viral therapy can overwhelm cancer’s natural defenses and kill it. He went on to say that it has been known for some time that giving a virus intravenously in mice can kill metastatic cancer, but this is the first time that it has been done in humans.
Erholtz had been suffering from multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells, for 10 years. The previously incurable blood cancer that wreaked havoc on Erholt’s body is now in complete remission, and has been for six months. Erholtz admitted that before agreeing to the experimental therapy, her mindset was that she was out of options. “I had to have failed all conventional treatment to do that trial,” she said. “That actually happened last March,” she continued.
Two patients with multiple myeloma were chosen because their immune systems are often suppressed, meaning that their bodies would not start to fight off the measles virus before it had time to attack the cancer cells. Both patients had previously limited exposure to the measles and fewer antibodies. A normal measles vaccine contains 10,000 infectious units of the virus. The patients in the trial were given 1 million infectious units to start. According to Dr. Russell, the dose was gradually increased, and finally worked when they were injected with 100 billion infectious units of the measles virus.
The treatment was most successful in Erholtz, who had the majority of her tumors in her bone marrow. In the other patient, the tumors were primarily in her leg muscles. She was in remission for nine months, but then her cancer returned. Dr. Russell believes that if they had been able to give a higher dose of the virus to the second patient, the outcome may have been better.
The fact that cancer can be devastated by a massive dose of a virus such as the measles has been known to researchers for decades. Around the world, researchers are working with several viruses that can kill cancer, including pox virus and herpes. These have produced lasting cures in studies done on rodents.
Some viruses are partial to certain organs and can cause specific damage to them. The lungs can be damaged by pneumonia and influenza, while hepatitis damages the liver. Dr. Russell explained that the measles virus can selectively damage a tumor without causing collateral damage to other bodily tissues.
Dr. Russell has likened the success of the trial to a call to action, saying it is not only good for “our virus.” This is “good for every virus everybody’s developing as a cancer therapy. We know this can happen.”
The Mayo Clinic is now planning a move into phase two clinical trials, and expecting a launch by September. This would involve a higher number of patients. A goal for the trial is approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) within four years.
Like with a vaccine, once the body’s immune system has fought and beaten a virus, the virus is not effective the next time. In this situation, the body will destroy the virus before it can attack the cancer cells. Researchers are working on a way to bypass the immune system by loading cells taken from the patient with the virus and reinjecting them into the patient.
Although Stacy Erholtz’s cancer was devastated by the massive dose of the measles, it is clear that there are still obstacles that need to be addressed and overcome. Despite the hurdles, the discovery is monumental. “It’s a landmark,” said Russell.
By Twanna Harps