An unexpected ally in the search for cancer's cure

Measles virus may be weapon in fighting cancer

- September 1, 2011

Chris Richardson, professor of microbiology & immunology and pediatrics.
Chris Richardson, professor of microbiology & immunology and pediatrics.

Dalhousie Medical School researchers have discovered that a tumour cell marker is a receptor for the measles virus, suggesting the possible use of measles virus to help fight cancer. Their findings appear in a recent issue of PLoS Pathogens.

Viruses cause infection by attaching to specific proteins on cell surfaces called receptors. Chris Richardson’s laboratory found that the tumour cell marker, PVRL4 (Nectin 4), is a receptor for measles virus.

“The cancer-killing properties of measles virus have previously been reported by researchers at the Mayo Clinic,” says Dr. Richardson, professor of microbiology & immunology and paediatrics with Dal and the IWK Health Centre. He is also the Canada Research Chair in Viral Vaccinology and Therapeutics.

“But this is the first time that the virus has been shown to target a common receptor that is highly expressed on the surfaces of lung, breast, colon, and ovarian cancer cells.”

The PVRL4 receptor is found in airway cells, and the measles virus infects tissue in the respiratory tract and lungs. Large amounts of PVRL4 are also present in many cancers that originate from cells of the lung, breast, colon, and ovaries.

Human cells that contain PVRL4 become highly susceptible to measles virus infections. Because PVRL4 is found in many types of human cancers, the measles virus could potentially be used to specifically target and infect cancer cells and then turn people’s immune systems against tumours.

The receptor was discovered by comparing the proteins made in virus-susceptible cancer cells to those present in cells resistant to the virus; some of the cancer cell lines the Dalhousie researchers tested did not express PVRL4, but most (85-90 per cent) of adenocarcinomas did.

“Since we’ve found that so many cancers contain PVRL4, we’re hopeful that the measles virus will be used to fight a variety of cancers,” says Dr. Chris Richardson.

"We believe there will be lots of commercial interest in this technology and we look forward to advancing the pivotal discovery that has a potential to make a difference in the lives of so many patients," says Stephen Hartlen, assistant vice-president (Industry Relations) and executive director of Industry Liaison and Innovation at Dalhousie.

This research was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Nova Scotia Health Research Foundation, the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation – Atlantic Region, the Rob McCall Fund (QEII Foundation), and the Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation.


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