Reducing Chemotherapy Side Effects: Training the Cancer Cell Snipers

2009-02-14 | |
Last updated: 2009-02-14

Chemotherapy, one of the common treatments for cancer, is well known and often feared for its range of side effects on our bodies. When we consider how chemotherapy is currently administered, a range of side effects would be the most likely situation. Most chemotherapy currently involves injecting a combination of more than 50 drugs into the body and allowing these drugs to circulate freely throughout the tissues until they happen upon the cancerous cells where they can do their job.

While many drugs are used in chemotherapy, the role of the drugs is largely the same in that they generally affect fast reproducing cells by altering their DNA or preventing the cells from dividing. These effects are devastating to cancerous cells, however, the problem with all this wandering of all these drugs is that they can and do have unintended effects on other cells just like most medicines do.

Thus, researchers have been working for some time to create a targeted means for delivering any of the range of treatments only to the cancerous cells. The obvious benefit of having a treatment delivered to only these cells is that there are fewer side effects. The less obvious benefits are that more destructive drugs can be used and the effective dose per cancerous cell can be increased.

One of the approaches for providing targeted drug delivery that is actively being researched is the use of viruses. When we think of viruses, thoughts of illness ranging from the common cold to the deadly but rare hemorrhagic fever of the Ebola virus may come to mind. For the use of viruses in drug delivery, however, the virus has been tricked into being our ‘friend’, or at least being our unwitting henchman.

With this background in mind, the recent research announcement from North Carolina State University on the use of a plant virus to deliver chemotherapy drugs directly to the cancer cells shows great promise.

The researchers modified a common plant virus to ‘recognize’ and target very specific cancer cells and swapped out the contents of the virus’s large cargo bay for some chemotherapy drugs. They also managed to determine a way to keep the drugs in the cargo bay until the virus arrives at its destination cancer cell. Together all these pieces provide the potential for highly directed delivery of chemicals that cancer cells hate.

So what comes next? Well, viruses are good tools because they can focus their attacks on specific cells and with this recent research work are able to deliver the desired medicine. However, identifying the cell to attack and training the virus to recognize it will continue to be a challenge. Because cancer cells are mutations of normal cells, their ‘fingerprints’ can vary considerably so if these viral techniques are to become a treatment option, better detective techniques will be required to identify the perpetrating cancer cell so the viral henchmen can do their jobs.

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