Unique virus-derived particles have been developed that can kill human blood cancer cells in the laboratory and eradicate the disease in mice with few side effects.

While a research team, led by John Bell, PhD, of Ottawa Hospital Research Institute (OHRI) and the University of Ottawa (uOttawa), Ontario, Canada, has been investigating replicating viruses for the treatment of solid cancer for many years and had very promising results with that work, this is their first major success in treating leukemia. It is also the first success they have had using a nonreplicating virus-derived particle as opposed to a replicating virus.

“Our research indicated that a replicating virus might not be the safest or most effective approach for treating leukemia, so we decided to investigate whether we could make virus-derived particles that no longer replicate but still kill cancer,” said co–senior author David Conrad, MD, a hematologist at The Ottawa Hospital, and currently completing his PhD at OHRI and uOttawa in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine. “We were delighted to see that this novel therapy was very safe at high doses, and worked extremely well in our laboratory leukemia models. We hope to test this in patients in the near future.”

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As described in Blood Cancer Journal (2013; doi: 10.1038/bcj.2013.23 ), the researchers used a specific method and dose of UV light to transform regular replicating viruses into unique particles that could no longer replicate and spread, but could still enter cancer cells efficiently, kill them, and stimulate a strong immune response against the cancer. These particles were able to kill multiple forms of leukemia in the laboratory, including samples taken from local patients who had failed all other therapies. Normal blood cells were not affected. This novel treatment was also successful in mouse models of leukemia. In fact, 80% of the mice that received the therapy had markedly prolonged survival, and 60% were eventually cured, while all of the untreated mice died of their leukemia within 20 days.

“Leukemia is a devastating disease that can be very difficult to treat, and new therapies are urgently needed,” said Dr. Conrad. “While we’re still at the early stages of this research, I think this therapy holds a lot of promise because it appears to have a potent, long-lasting effect on leukemia without the debilitating side effects of many cancer therapies used in the clinic right now. We will likely see even better results once we optimize the dose in our preparations to advance this research into human clinical trials.”