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Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis think they can modify a virus so that it can be used to find, image, and kill cancer cells.

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) thinks enough of the idea that it bestowed a $3 million grant on David T. Curiel, MD, PhD, and his team. Dr. Curiel is distinguished professor of radiation oncology and director of the university’s Biologic Therapeutics Center.

The team is focusing on the adenovirus, which causes the common cold and which the researchers have been playing with for some time. Said Dr. Curiel, as quoted in a university news release:

This is a virus that we know a lot about. Our research seeks ways to use the virus like a nanoparticle and capitalize on all the unique capacities of the virus and our ability to manipulate it.

The virus would become what the NCI calls a “theragnostic” agent, used for both diagnosis and therapy to attack a specific cancer.

Therapy would be tailored to a specific patient’s biology, Dr. Curiel said. “And, ideally, such a personalized treatment agent should include everything you would want it to do. It would be targeted specifically to the cancer and avoid healthy cells. It would deliver therapeutic drugs. And it would have a method to image the tumor to monitor the outcome of therapy.”

Can a virus do all that? Yes, Dr. Curiel said. Like nanoparticles, which are being researched intensively as cancer fighters, a virus can be modified to carry different molecules, drugs, and metals on its surface.

A virus could be engineered to bind to specific types of tissue—such as cancer cells. It could carry a heavy metal that would act as a contrast agent for imaging, or a radioactive metal that would deliver radiation therapy directly to cancer cells, bypassing healthy cells.

Unlike nanoparticles, viruses have DNA, which could also be modified to help in theragnostics. “”With a virus,” Dr. Curiel said, “we can alter its genes so that it expresses a protein that could be used against the cancer or a protein that might enable us to image the tumor.”

Pretty cool. This should be interesting research to follow.

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