Cancer is an illness that few have not felt in some way or another. A life changing sickness that has never found an undoubted cure, this is an area that any medical researcher would love to break ground in. Now, with modern technology more advanced than ever, and new roads being made into treatments, an unlikely hero has emerged in the fight against cancer.

A cancer treatment that can completely destroy cancer cells without affecting healthy cells could soon be a possibility, thanks to research led by Cardiff University. Their subject of study? A virus. While viruses are best known for causing the illness rather than fighting it, scientists have recently found a way to use them as a positive force in the fight against cancer. Viruses are small, rapidly replicating, infectious agents that can only survive within the cells of other organisms. This means they must take on certain characteristics in a fairly predictable way, allowing for manipulation to take place.

The team of university researchers have successfully ‘trained’ or ‘designed’ a respiratory virus to recognise ovarian cancer and completely destroy it without infecting other cells. The reprogrammed virus could also be used to treat other cancers such as breast, pancreatic, lung and oral. This shows huge allowance for growth and insane potential in cancer research if further testing follows the trend.

As these types of reprogrammed viruses are already being used in gene therapy procedures to treat a range of diseases, their capability has already been shown. Showing they can be trained from being life-threatening into potentially lifesaving agents, viruses might be the missing key in cancer studies. Up until now, however, these designed viruses have not been able to selectively recognise the cancer cells apart from the healthy cells, infecting the healthy cells and causing unwanted side effects.

Having taken a common, well-studied virus and completely redesigned, it can now no longer attach to non-cancerous cells, but instead seeks out a specific marker protein, which is unique to certain cancer cells. This allows the virus to differentiate between cells and attack only the right ones. In the successful case the team was able to introduce the reprogrammed virus to ovarian cancer which it identified and destroyed accordingly. While not a blanket marker for all cancers, this does bring along potential in a number of cancer-based research areas, offering real possibilities for patients with a variety of cancers.

The inner workings of the virus can be complicated – of course – but in a basic sense, the virus enters the cancer cell and uses its faculties to replicate, producing copies of itself en masse before rupturing the cell and promptly destroying it in the process. The newly released viral copies can then bind and infect neighbouring cancer cells and repeat the same cycle, eventually removing the tumour mass altogether. The virus also allows the body’s natural immune system to be harnessed, helping it to recognise and destroy the malignant cells.

More work on and refinement to the viral DNA could also allow the virus to produce anticancer drugs, such as antibodies, during the process of infecting cells. This effectively turns the cancer into a factory, producing the very drugs that will kill it cell by cell. As research was carried out using mice with ovarian cancer, it has not yet reached clinical trials. The next step on the road to medical progress is to test the technique with other cancers, seeing what identifiable proteins can be marked in this way.

While this potential is only for the future, it shows how far we have come in the fight against major illnesses. Until then, take care of your health to ensure a happy, long life.