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Can the measles vaccine cure cancer?

Charlotte Hilton Andersen is the author of the book The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everything and runs the popular health and fitness website of the same name, where she tries out a new workout every month, specializing...

The cure for cancer may be closer than you think

A cure for cancer. How long have we waited to hear those words? Considering one in two men and one in three women will develop some type of cancer in their lifetime, it's no wonder we all wear pink, eat kale, hold silent auctions and loud fundraisers, wear sunscreen and any other number of things we do to help ward the deadly disease away from us and our loved ones.

While many hope and wait for a cure, one cancer patient experienced it firsthand, and her story gives legitimate hope for a permanent cure for everyone. Oddly enough, her miracle came from one of the most unlikely places: another disease.

On Monday, the Mayo Clinic announced that Stacy Erholtz, who was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, is currently cancer free thanks to a mega dose of the measles vaccine. Yep, the treatment is derived from the same MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine that's been so vilified in the past few years. But not only has it not been linked to childhood autism, now in addition to protecting against measles it may also be able to beat cancer.

Oncolytic virotherapy has been used to treat animals with cancer before but, according to Stephen Russell, M.D., a professor of molecular medicine who treated the patient at the Mayo Clinic, Stacy's case is the "first well-documented instance of a patient who has received an intravenously administered virus that has caused complete remission of disseminating cancer."

The experimental virotherapy works by sending a bomb of viral cells which then bind to the cancer cells, eventually causing them to explode. Rather than using the smallest amount possible to trigger an immune response, the way vaccines are used, they target the tumor with enough of the virus to completely overwhelm the cancer, in this case enough for 10 million measles vaccines. The scientists explain that the virus cells "bind to tumors and use them as hosts to replicate their own genetic material; the cancer cells eventually explode and release the virus," explains the Star Tribune. (I love the image of exploding cancer cells! Take that, cancer!!) 

Balveen Kaur, M.D., a professor at Ohio State and the vice-chairwoman of research at the school's Comprehensive Cancer Center, told PRI to think of viruses as "tiny biological weapons." She explains, "Viruses can infect normal cells, but it's a self-limiting infection, so normal cells can easily overpower these viruses and get rid of the infection. But in the weakened cancer cells, the virus can replicate, destroy cancer cells [and] make more new virus, which can then go and kill more cancer cells around it."

Still, doctors are reserved. There were other cancer patients in the same trial as Stacy and none of them responded as well as she did. They say they think that virotherapy may only work on some types of cancers and for patients who, ironically, haven't already been exposed to the vaccine (or have had their immunity wiped out through chemotherapy and radiation).

The next step will be Phase II clinical trials on people with no other treatment options in order to fine tune the treatment. "Hopefully, by combining the virus with drugs or by increasing the dose further still, we will be able to get those complete cures which we would love to see," Russell says.

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