Using Viruses to Fight Cancer

Using Viruses to Fight Cancer

Nicole Steinmetz, PhDNicole Steinmetz, PhD

In nature, viruses survive by seeking out and infecting specific cells. Now, School of Medicine scientists are exploring how to use this ability to treat cancer.

In lab experiments, a research team led by Nicole Steinmetz, PhD, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, radiology and materials science and engineering, used viral nanoparticles from plants to deliver cancer-killing drugs directly to tumor cells. Every virus has a distinct profile, so her lab is studying a library of plant viruses, including potato virus X, cowpea mosaic virus and tobacco mosaic virus, to determine which profiles are more successful at targeting tumors. A recent study1 published in Molecular Pharmaceutics showed potato virus X—which has an elongated shape—demonstrated enhanced abilities in homing to and penetrating tumors compared with the spherical-shaped nanoparticles of the cowpea mosaic virus.

Many traditional chemotherapies damage healthy cells too, leaving patients with a battery of undesirable side effects. But viral nanoparticles seek out only certain cells. Researchers load them with medication and add biochemical directions in the form of molecules called targeting ligands that point the nanoparticles to the cells marked for destruction.

Early research has shown promise, but there’s more work ahead before the method can be put into clinical use, Steinmetz says.

1 Research funded by NIH grant No. R00 EB009105.