Dr. Ken Hirasawa, a professor of Immunology at Memorial University, is learning how to rewire common viruses, so that they can enter our bodies, seek out cancer cells, and literally blow them up.

His research is so promising he recently received a $573,750 research grant from the Canadian Institute of Health Research. His field is known as “viral oncolysis.” To break that word down, “Onco” is latin for cancer, and lysis means “to rupture a cell.”

The promise of using viruses to destroy cancer cells has been around for a while, and was in fact discovered, like many scientific breakthroughs, by accident. Somewhere around 1900, when everyone was being injected with rabies vaccinations, a few doctors noticed that many cancer patients injected with a rabies vaccination enjoyed seemingly spontaneous tumour regression.

Shortly thereafter, animal experiments conducted in the 1920s confirmed that viruses like influenza and Newcastle Disease were capable of infecting and lysing certain tumours. What’s new to the research is our chances of genetically modifying these viruses, so they can be a safe form of cancer therapy in the human body.

Fields like genetics, virology, and biochemistry have made leaps and bounds in the last few decades, allowing whipsmart wonder-scientists like Dr. Hirasawa to tweak biological activities in viruses, which would make oncolysis a viable form of cancer therapy in the near future.

While it is true that an oncolytic virus like V-TEC (which is based on herpes simplex virus type 1) can enter both cancer cells and normal healthy cells, our normal healthy cells will kill it upon its entry. Cancer cells lack this defensive ability, so V-Tec can have its way with cancer cells, but not healthy cells. Once inside a cancer cell, safe and sound, the oncolytic virus replicates itself continuously, until the cancer cell literally bursts.

Impressively, scientists can and have modified oncolytic viruses to include a gene that codes for a protein that stimulates the production of immune cells in our body. This means that the burst-dead cancer cell will release new viruses (to attack more cancer cells), along with a variety of tumour-specific antigens that can stimulate an immune response against cancer cells throughout the body.

Dr. Hirasawa and his lab team are investigating which cancer-specific cellular changes support this form of potential cancer therapy. And that’s not all he and his lab are up to. He and his team are also working on bettering the fluorescent detection of cancer cells by something called protoporphyrin IX.

Protoporphyrin IX can be used to basically illuminate your tumour, including its boundaries, in order to enhance the accuracy of surgery during tumour removal.