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Cancer-Killing Viruses Employ Multiple Mechanisms

The search for safe, effective cancer therapies has led numerous academic and industrial research groups to investigate oncolytic, or cancer-killing viruses//. Oncolytic viruses which include the naturally occurring reovirus, infect cancer cells while sparing healthy tissues. Once inside the tumor cell, the viruses produce thousands of copies of themselves, causing tumor cells to burst. After tumor cells die, viruses clear rapidly from the body without harming the patient.

More recently however, it has been discovered that the reovirus may also have the potential to prime the body’s own immune system to mount a defense against cancer cells. Oncolytics Biotech Inc., a company developing an oncolytic virus treatment based on the reovirus, believes that in addition to directly killing cancer cells, oncolytic viruses may induce a powerful, long-lasting immune response that continues to shrink tumors for weeks or months after the virus is gone. This complementary tumor-killing mechanism is based on the virus acting on specific immune system cells.

The immune system is composed of three “layers” or mechanisms that protect humans from disease. The first line of defense, the skin and mucous membranes, acts as a physical barrier. The second layer is the innate immune system, a broad-acting, short-term, non-specific immune response to pathogens such as bacteria or viruses. Microbes that evade the innate system encounter a third layer of protection; a second, more powerful immune mechanism called the adaptive immune response. Through adaptive immunity, populations of white blood cells known as lymphocytes – B cells and T cells – mount a powerful, highly specific immune system attack on specific pathogens. The adaptive immune responses to virus and bacterial infections, for example, are quite different.

The immune system also protects humans from cancer. In the case of the reovirus, researchers believe the key is the interaction between innat
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