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Do not disturb

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Anyone for pick-up sticks? It’s that frustrating game for the steady handed where you must remove one stick from a pile without disturbing any of the others. Easy to begin with, but then it gets trickier as the layers of sticks reveal themselves in their complex glory.

It could be seen as a metaphor for the fragile interconnectedness of all things, if that doesn’t sound too grand for a game of sticks. Remove one thing—it could be a type of plant—and an entire insect population may disappear. Get rid of the bees, as we seem to be doing, and we will follow within three years, at least according to Einstein.

There are consequences if you remove        any one thing from the world, as biologists have been pointing out for several hundred years. Even if you remove a virus, something else may happen, because every living thing has a symbiotic relationship of some kind with everything else in a constant evolutionary two-step.

Right now, the World Health Organization (WHO) is seeking to wipe the measles virus from the face of the earth through the worldwide adoption of vaccination.  Its mission surely must be a ‘good thing’—measles can be a killer, after all—but it’s not quite as black-and-white as that.

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic have discovered that the measles virus kills cancer. Admittedly, it was an engineered form, and delivered at extremely high doses, but it has cured a woman who was terminally ill with stage IV multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood that had spread through her body and bone marrow.1

Within five minutes of getting the infusion, she developed a splitting headache and a fever of 105°F (40°C), and then vomited and shook violently. But 36 hours later, a golf ball-sized tumor on her forehead had vanished. All traces of the cancer had completely disappeared from her body two weeks later.

Until she had the measles therapy, she had endured every type of chemotherapy and undergone two stem cell transplants, but nothing had been successful.

The Mayo researchers had engineered the virus and weakened it before giving her a dose that was strong enough to vaccinate 10 million people. Thousands of cancer patients have been treated with the measles virus before, but the Mayo researchers were the first to crank up the dose.

“I think we succeeded because we pushed the dose higher than others have pushed it. And I think that is critical. The amount of virus that’s in the bloodstream really is the driver of how much gets into the tumors,” said Dr Stephen Russell, one of the Mayo researchers.

The cancer cells joined together as a response to the virus, then destroyed themselves. The virus also kickstarted the immune response, which was able to recognize cancerous cells and mopped them up as they were forming.

This isn’t news to grandmother. She knew that measles was a relatively benign virus that helped the development of the immune system, provided the child was well nourished. As the WHO should be telling everyone, measles can be lethal only in the malnourished and those with a compromised immune system. It’s about nutrition, not vaccination.

Measles is an oncolytic virus, which means it kills cancer cells. It’s an example of a therapeutic approach called virotherapy that was discovered in the early part of the last century—one physician in 1904 had noted that two cases of leukemia had been reversed after the patients developed influenza—but research only really got going in the 1960s.

A modified form of herpes, another oncolytic virus, was approved in the US and Europe in 2015 as a treatment for advanced melanoma. But it’s the measles virus that seems to have special potential. Researchers from the University College London Cancer Institute wrote a paper entitled “Measles to the Rescue,” in which they described the growing evidence of the virus’s safety and efficacy. 2

The truth is we’re not winning the war against cancer. Current  therapies can be more damaging than curative, and, as so often proves to be the case, the answer lies in nature, even when it seems to be malign.

Who, after all, would have thought that a killer virus could also be our savior? Careful with that pick-up stick.



Mayo Clinic Proc, 2014; 89: 926–33


Viruses, 2016; 8: 294

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