Researchers from the Queen Mary University of London in the United Kingdom have modified a flu virus and used it to successfully target pancreatic cancer cells.
pancreas x-ray
Cancer of the pancreas — shown here — may soon be easier to treat due to recent findings.

Pancreatic cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related mortality in the United States, with over 43,000 deaths being estimated for the year 2017.

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), over 8 percent of the people who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer have a 5-year survival prognosis, although the NCI, as well as the American Cancer Society, emphasize that many people live longer and no two patients are alike.

As with most forms of cancer, the sooner pancreatic cancer is detected, the better the outlook for the patient. When caught early, pancreatic cancer tends to be localized, which facilitates its management.

The need for better, more effective therapies for pancreatic cancer remains dire, especially because it develops and spreads so rapidly, often resisting treatment.

In order to avoid drug resistance, researchers are looking into using mutated viruses to target pancreatic cancer cells more precisely.

With this purpose in mind, a team of researchers led by Dr. Gunnel Halldén, from Queen Mary University, set out to genetically modify a flu virus.

To test its efficacy against cancer, the scientists used a genetically modified mouse model of pancreatic cancer, which involved pancreatic cancer cells from human patients.

The first author of the paper is Dr. Stella Man, from the Barts Cancer Institute at Queen Mary, and the findings were published in the journal Molecular Cancer Therapeutics.

Destroying cancer cells from within

Unlike healthy pancreatic cells, pancreatic cancer cells contain a molecule called alpha v beta 6.

Dr. Halldén and her colleagues genetically altered the flu virus to contain an extra protein that binds to alpha v beta 6. When the flu virus gains access to the cancer cell, it multiplies within the cell, eventually making it burst and destroying it.

Then, as the virus replicates, the cycle is repeated, ultimately killing off the tumor completely.

The team tested this new approach in the mouse model with human cancer cells and found that the modified virus successfully stopped the cancer from growing.

We’ve shown for the first time that pancreatic cancers can be specifically targeted with a modified version of the common flu virus […] The new virus specifically infects and kills pancreatic cancer cells, causing few side effects in nearby healthy tissue.”

Dr. Stella Man

“Not only is our targeting strategy both selective and effective,” adds the first author, “but we have now further engineered the virus so that it can be delivered in the bloodstream to reach cancer cells that have spread throughout the body.”

The researchers are hopeful that they will soon be able to move these findings to human clinical trials.

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

On this note, Dr. Halldén adds: “Currently, we are seeking new funds to support further development into clinical trials within the next 2 years. With this funding in place, early phase trials will usually take about 5 years to determine whether or not the therapy is safe and effective.”