Israeli researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem developed a new method to treat cancer with a different deadly disease: AIDS.
Over the past decade cancer has become to be the number 1 cause of mortality in the western world. About 12.7 million people around the world are diagnosed each year with cancer and 7.6 million people die as a result of it.
In Israel alone, about 28,000 people are diagnosed each year, with nearly 11,000 resulting deaths. While cancer research is one of the most advanced fields in the medical research world, there is yet to be a definite cure.
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Radiation therapy limitations
With the lack of a clear solutions, researchers are turning towards less conventional directions. For decades, Prof. Moshe Kotler from the Immunology and Cancer Research Department at the Hebrew University has been conducting research on the HIV virus. He reached the idea to use the lethal virus in order to fight cancer along with Dr. Roni Nowarski, after they found that a small part of the VIF protein – which is part of the AIDS virus – may prevent the restoration of cancerous cells damaged by radiation therapy.
Radiation therapy in cancer patients is causing fractions in the DNA of the cancerous cells, a process that is supposed to terminate these cells and halt the progress of the disease. Nevertheless, in many cases the cancerous cells manage to rehabilitate and become immune to radiation.
HIV against cancer restoration
This is where the VIF protein, found in AIDS, becomes relevant. This protein damages the body’s capability to fight viruses after being exposed to a disease, but the research team headed by Prof. Kotler, found that this property can actually help treat cancer. In lab experiments they have inserted a part of the VIF protein into cultures of blood cancer cells, such as Lymphoma. The results have shown that the protein extracted from the HIV virus attached itself to the protein A3G that exists in cancerous blood cells and prevented them from being restored after radiation.
No risk of infection
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Since it is merely a segment of the virus and not the whole virus, there is no risk that it will cause patients infection with AIDS. Even more so, Prof. Kotler predicts that the new treatment won’t have many side effects since the protein influences only cancerous blood cells or blood cells that attack viruses.
The method was found to be effective in some types of blood cancer, such as Lymphoma and Myeloma, but the researchers think there is a possibility that other kinds of cancer, like different types of Leukemia, can be treated as well. “Leukemia is a name for many types of cancer that can be very different from one another,” explains Dr. Nowarski. “We don’t have a lot of experience with Leukemia but from the experience we do have, some types reacted and some didn’t. This is because some contain the target protein and some don’t, but we expect that other types of cancer, which have not been tested yet, may react to the treatment if they do contain the target protein.”
Prof. Kotler’s method has been recently registered as a patent by Yissum, the technology transfer company of the Hebrew University. Currently, the company is trying to find investors for the ongoing development of the product and its commercialization in the future.
The new method was presented during Bio-Med Week – an international conference held in Tel Aviv and is considered to be the second largest biotechnology conference outside the US. CEO of Yissum, Yaakov Michelin is optimistic: “There is a great need for an effective and more focused treatment of cancer, with less side effects,” he says. “The treatment discovered by the researchers has a great potential to become a new biological treatment for cancer.”
However, Prof. Kotler cautions it will still take a long time before this scientific breakthrough becomes a commercial product.
A year ago, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania announced that they have succeeded to treat cancer patients by using a harmless type of AIDS virus, combined in genetic engineering with white blood cells of patients. Three patients went through the experimental treatment. Two of them were cured entirely and one showed signs of recovery. Even though this treatment was also used to treat cancer, there is no connection between their method to that of the Israeli researchers.
The Pennsylvania University researchers used the virus to inject to the DNA genes that attack cancer. Hence, they used a kind of vehicle for cells that fight the disease. The new Israeli method, however, uses the lethal properties of AIDS in order to make the cancerous cells sensitive to radiation, thus killing them.