Q Could viruses be used to fight cancer?

— Nathan Wagner, 17, Benton High School

A Cancer is, essentially, cells that have started to grow uncontrollably and stop behaving like normal cells. Viruses are an attractive treatment tool because they, by their very nature, are manipulators of cells. It may be possible to re-engineer viruses in a way that could either stop cancers from growing or kill cancer cells.

This idea began to gain traction in the 1990s when it became clear that some gene mutations that make cancer more aggressive are also important for defenses against viruses. We may be able to design oncolytic viruses, or viruses that would kill cancer cells, in a way that specifically targets cancer cells without attacking normal cells.

That’s really the challenge of the field: designing viruses that can be specific enough to kill cancer cells without harming the patient.

Currently, there is one virus that has gone through clinical trials and was approved by the FDA for treatment. It is a derivative of the virus that causes cold sores and herpes, and it’s used to treat melanoma.

The currently approved virus for treating melanomas has shown to prolong life by about four months. Although it’s a very modest amount of time, it’s the sort of success scientists hope to build on.

Realistically we’re going to see these viruses slowly become better and hopefully reach actual cures at some point. But a cure is still quite a way off, and it will take a lot of hard work to get there.

Eric Johannsen is an assistant professor and infectious disease doctor at UW-Madison.