In laboratory experiments involving human cancer cells, scientists used a virus similar to the one that helped eradicate smallpox to coax cancer cells to produce a protein which makes them susceptible to radioactive iodine.
"We hope that the recent advances in virology, genetic engineering and targeted radiotherapy will soon translate into an entire class of novel oncolytic, virotherapies for the treatment of deadly cancers," said Yuman Fong, a researcher involved in the work from the Department of Surgery at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
To make this discovery, Fong and colleagues successfully infected and killed triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) cells using a vaccinia virus.
In addition, the researchers were also able to use the virus to cause infected cancer cells produce a cell surface protein called hNIS that normally is used to concentrate iodine in thyroid cells.
The hNIS protein, expressed in thyroid cancer, is why most thyroid cancers can be cured or successfully treated with a small dose of radioactive iodine (which kills thyroid cancer cells expressing hNIS).
Armed with the ability to force TNBC cells to produce this protein, researchers now have a way to deliver anticancer therapies to this deadly and resistant form of cancer.
Researchers in the study published in The FASEB Journal stressed that human clinical trials are necessary before any definitive claims of a cure can be made and treatments can be made available.
"This is an important and significant discovery that basically combines proven cures for two other diseases," said Gerald Weissmann, Editor-in-Chief of The FASEB Journal.
"Even more exciting is that the effects of this virus and radioactive iodine are well known in people, hopefully reducing the amount of time it will take for it to reach the clinic," he said.