Foot-and-mouth disease virus could hold key to treating deadly cancer

12 Feb 2020

Image: Andrew Milligan/PA

Researchers have discovered a potential key to treating pancreatic cancer using the foot-and-mouth disease virus.

A virus that causes fever and blisters in cattle could hold the key to tackling deadly pancreatic cancer, scientists have said. Researchers have developed “a promising new drug” that uses a protein present in the foot-and-mouth disease virus to kill off tumours in the pancreas.

Scientists hope that the results of the study, published in the journal Theranostics, could pave the way for new treatments for the disease, which causes around 9,200 deaths in the UK and 500 deaths in Ireland every year.

Commenting on the research, Dr Emily Farthing, senior research information manager at Cancer Research UK, said: “This early-stage research has developed a promising new drug that reduces the growth of pancreatic tumours in the lab.

“And with further research to see if it’s safe and effective for patients, we hope that this could one day offer new hope for people with this disease.”

Completely killed in mice

Pancreatic cancer is the 11th most common cancer in the UK, according to Cancer Research UK. In Ireland, approximately 550 people are diagnosed with it each year, according to the Irish Cancer Society. Only 1pc of people diagnosed with the disease are expected to survive for 10 years or more.

The researchers found that a protein fragment taken from the foot-and-mouth disease virus targets another protein, called ΑvΒ6, found on the surface of a majority of pancreatic cancer cells. Working with drug companies AstraZeneca and ADC Therapeutics, the team combined the virus protein fragment with a highly potent drug, called tesirine, to target pancreatic cancer cells.

When mice with pancreatic cancer tumours were treated with the protein-drug combination, the tumours were completely killed. The rodents that had ΑvΒ6-positive tumours were given a tiny dose of the protein-drug combination three times a week, which stopped the tumours growing completely.

Why it is effective

But when the dose was increased and given twice a week, the researchers found all the tumours in mice were completely killed.

Prof John Marshall from the Queen Mary University of London, and the lead author on the study, said: “Foot-and-mouth disease virus uses ΑvΒ6 as a route to infect cattle, as the virus binds to this protein on a cow’s tongue.

“By testing pieces of the protein in the virus that attaches to ΑvΒ6, we’ve developed a route to deliver a drug specifically to pancreatic cancers.”

The team also used the protein-drug combination on human cancer cells in the lab. Some of these cells had ΑvΒ6 on their surface while others did not. The researchers found that cells with ΑvΒ6 responded well to the treatment, while the ΑvΒ6-negative cells needed much higher doses of the drug for the cells to be killed.

The team now plans to perform further protein-drug combination tests on mice before moving to clinical trials. The research was funded by the national medical research charity Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund.

– PA Media, with additional reporting from Colm Gorey