Virus shells used to fight cancer cells

Professional Practice Fellow Braeden Donaldson prepares cell cultures yesterday. Photo: Linda Robertson
Professional Practice Fellow Braeden Donaldson prepares cell cultures yesterday. Photo: Linda Robertson
Dunedin researchers are using part of a virus, used to control rabbits in Otago, as a way to attack cancer cells, possibly saving human lives.

The outer shell of the rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV), stripped of its genetic material, is also being used by University of Otago scientists in a bid to eventually develop a ''universal cancer vaccine''.

Much more work was needed, ''but the prospects for this type of vaccine could be very high'', Dr Braeden Donaldson said.

A Professional Practice Fellow in the University of Otago pathology department, Dr Donaldson said rabbits and cancer were both good at hiding, multiplying quickly, and inflicting damage.

''When we talk about our vaccine, we definitely get the odd chuckle about using a rabbit virus to develop cancer vaccines for humans.''

He said his work was part of wider research led by pathology head Prof Sarah Young, Prof Vernon Ward, of microbiology and immunology, and Dr Greg Walker, of the School of Pharmacy.

The aim was to use virus-like particles (VLP), formed from the outer capsid protein cap of the calicivirus.

The particles contained no virus genetic material, so could not infect or replicate, but still stimulated the immune system very strongly.

The pathology department's overall research focus included melanoma and colorectal cancer, as well as breast and prostate cancers.

His earlier doctoral studies were also supported by a $75,000 PhD study grant from the Freemasons Southern Oncology Fellowship.

The overall research included testing the vaccine with immune cells isolated from colorectal cancer patient samples, provided by Dunedin Hospital.

If the vaccine was sufficiently stimulating to human immune cells, taken from the body, this would be a ''significant step towards clinical trials'', which were likely within a few years.

The progress of international anti-cancer immunotherapy research was ''astounding'' and, despite more hurdles, ''we are getting very close to beating this disease''.

john.gibb@odt.co.nz

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