Researchers hijack the common flu to make it a pancreatic cancer killer

25 Jan 2018

Image: Kateryna Kon/Shutterstock

As part of a new effort to halt one of the deadliest cancers in its tracks, researchers are recruiting a common flu virus as a powerful new weapon.

While the flu virus might be the last thing we want to hear about in the midst of what has been a particularly virulent season, it could prove to be a powerful new weapon in the fight against pancreatic cancer.

The reason for the poor survival rate of pancreatic cancer (about 5pc) is due to both its late diagnosis and its rapid development of resistance to current therapies. This has led researchers to search for new strategies to prevent the cells from developing immunity.

In a paper published to Molecular Cancer Therapeutics, a team of researchers from Queen Mary University of London has revealed how the common flu can be modified to attack different parts of the body – in this case, the pancreatic cancer cells

“The new virus specifically infects and kills pancreatic cancer cells, causing few side effects in nearby healthy tissue,” said the study’s lead researcher, Dr Gunnel Halldén.

“Not only is our targeting strategy both selective and effective, but we have now further engineered the virus so that it can be delivered in the bloodstream to reach cancer cells that have spread throughout the body.”

The key to the breakthrough was down to a unique feature of pancreatic cancer cells: a specific molecule called alpha v beta 6 (αvβ6), which is found on the surface of many pancreatic cancer cells but, crucially, not on normal cells.


Dr Gunnel Halldén, Queen Mary University of London. Image: Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund

Could be used with existing treatments

With this knowledge, the team set about modifying the flu virus so that it displays an additional small protein on its outer coat that recognises and binds to αvβ6 molecules.

When the virus enters the cancer cells, it spreads, producing thousands of copies of itself prior to bursting out of the cell and thereby destroying it in the process. These new copies can then bind on to neighbouring cancer cells and repeat the same cycle, eventually removing the tumour mass altogether.

This seemingly astounding solution was tested on human pancreatic cancer cells grafted on to mice, with the results showing that they inhibited cancer growth.

“If we manage to confirm these results in human clinical trials, then this may become a promising new treatment for pancreatic cancer patients, and could be combined with existing chemotherapy drugs to kill persevering cancer cells,” Halldén said.

She added that the team’s new virus is much more specific in its targeting compared with previous versions.

If the team secures funding for clinical trials within the next two years, early-phase trials could be just a few years away.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic