JENNIFER GANTON, MSC, BJ – Special to The Ottawa Construction News
Could a virus cure cancer? When most people think of viruses, they think of the common cold, the flu and possibly more terrifying things like Ebola and Zika. But if Dr. John Bell is right, viruses could one day become just as important for treating cancer as surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.
Dr. Bell, a senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital and professor at the University of Ottawa, recently presented his ground breaking research at the Ottawa Construction Association’s Annual General Meeting. He also discussed how fundraising events like THE RIDE are crucial to providing funds to continue his research.
Dr. Bell began by explaining that our bodies are made up of trillions of cells. Things like smoking, UV light and plain old bad luck can cause changes in our cells that allow them to grow uncontrollably, becoming cancer.
Dr. Bell first began thinking about viruses as a possible treatment for cancer more than 15 years ago.
“We were looking at the molecular changes that allow cancer cells to grow so quickly and we found that many of these changes also reduce the cells’ ability to fight off certain viruses,” explained Dr. Bell. “It’s kind of like our cells make a deal with the devil when they become cancer – they grow more quickly but they also become vulnerable to viruses.”
This idea has now grown into a whole new field of cancer research. Dr. Bell and his colleagues have identified many viruses that are naturally better at killing cancer cells than normal cells, and they have used special laboratory techniques to develop new viruses that are even better at this. Laboratory studies have shown that these viruses can spread throughout cancerous tumours and destroy them without harming normal cells.
Dr. Bell and his colleagues have taken this idea all the way from the lab bench to the patient’s bedside. They recently launched the world’s first clinical trial of a doublevirus therapy for cancer. This experimental therapy was jointly developed at The Ottawa Hospital, the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, McMaster University and the University of Ottawa. It uses a virus that was first found in Brazilian sandflies and another virus that is associated with a form of the common cold. It is designed to harness the body’s own immune system to fight cancer, in addition to the viruses.
“Our immune system is like a tiny army that helps the body fight off viruses and bacteria,” said Dr. Bell. “But when a cancer cell gets infected by a virus, the immune system often ends up fighting the cancer as well as the virus. So we’re fighting the cancer on two levels.”
The trial will include up to 79 patients with advanced cancer in Ottawa, Hamilton, Toronto and Vancouver. To participate, patients must have already tried all available therapies, among many other criteria.
“The trial is ongoing, so we still don’t know if this particular therapy will work in people, but we’re confident that we’re on the right track, and that some kind of viral therapy will eventually play an important role in treating cancer.”
Indeed, the United States has recently approved the first viral therapy for cancer, called T-Vec. This therapy is based on a virus that causes cold sores around the mouth. It has shown great promise in treating certain kinds of skin cancer.
Dr. Bell and his team are already planning a number of other clinical trials and they were recently awarded a $60 million grant to create a national network for this kind of research, called BioCanRx. They have also developed a sophisticated manufacturing facility at The Ottawa Hospital that is making viruses for Dr. Bell’s cancer trials, as well other viruses and vaccines for external clients around the world.
“Support from the community of Ottawa has been crucial for our research,” said Dr. Bell. “In particular, I want to thank the construction community, which has been incredibly supportive of The Ottawa Hospital, and especially our major cancer research fundraiser, THE RIDE.”
Dr. Bell concluded his presentation on a humourous note, with a large image of a giant tandem bicycle, his own head pasted on one rider and Robert Merkley’s head pasted on the other. Both Dr. Bell and Mr. Merkley have signed up for THE RIDE on Sept. 11, 2016. Visit www.DoTheRide.ca for further information on how to register.
Note: The viral therapy trial at The Ottawa Hospital is only accepting a small number of patients, with very specific characteristics. However, many other experimental cancer therapies are available at The Ottawa Hospital. Speak with an oncologist and see http://www. ohri.ca/newsroom/newsstory.asp?ID=271 for more information.
Jennifer Gratton wrote this article on behalf of The Ottawa Hospital Foundation.