How a Cold Virus Can Fight Cancer

Researchers at Penn are doing some seriously cool work to battle early-stage mesothelioma.

Researchers at Penn Medicine announced this week some promising results from a small clinical trial for a new cancer treatment using a modified cold virus to fight mesothelioma, a deadly cancer of the lungs. The treatment, called immuno-gene therapy, entails injecting patients with a small amount of adenovirus, a cold virus—just enough to trigger an immune response. Then, the patient’s own immune defenses take over and start destroying cancer cells.

The results of their study, which track the progress of a handful patients with mesothelioma at various stages of the disease, are in today’s issue of American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. Of the nine patients enrolled in the study, antibody responses mounted against the tumors were seen in almost all of them—including the advance-stage ones, who, typically, have few viable treatment options available. What’s more, the disease either stabilized or regressed in five patients, and no major side effects from the therapy were observed.

This is pretty big news for anyone who has—or knows someone who has—mesothelioma. The Mayo Clinic characterizes it as an “aggressive and deadly” cancer, usually caused by asbestos exposure. There’s no known cure, and treatments are aimed mainly at making patients as comfortable as possible.