Could a cow virus help fight multiple myeloma?

black and white cow
Engineered forms of two bovine viruses are being examined for their potential to treat multiple myeloma.

One of the most active research endeavors in immuno-oncology involves engineering human viruses into weapons that can fight cancer. Now a group of scientists at the University of Parma in Italy is looking to another source of potentially potent cancer-killing viruses: cows.

During the American Society of Hematology (ASH) meeting on Dec. 3 in San Diego, the researchers will present a poster describing their work with bovine viral diarrhea virus (BVDV) and oncolytic bovine herpesvirus type 4 (BoHV-4) in cell lines of multiple myeloma. Engineered versions of measles and reovirus have already shown promise in this type of blood cancer, but the Italian team felt bovine viruses would sidestep potential limitations of using human viruses, including immune responses created by vaccines or natural infection, they explained in an abstract.

The scientists began by exposing multiple myeloma cell lines to either active or inactivated BVDV. The virus killed a significant number of cells, they reported. And when they followed the virus treatment with Velcade (bortezomib), a chemotherapy drug commonly used to treat multiple myeloma, some cells that had become resistant to Velcade started responding to the drug again.

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Then they tried infecting multiple myeloma cells with BoHV-4. That didn’t work. But when they put stem cells from bone marrow into the mix, they discovered that BoHV-4 could infiltrate those cells and indirectly cause the death of multiple myeloma cells. The bottom line: Bovine viruses should be further examined for their potential direct and indirect impact on cancer cell death, they wrote.

Cancer-killing viruses, also known as oncolytic viruses, have generated plenty of buzz in the oncology community. Earlier this year, a team of scientists at Duke University received breakthrough status from the FDA for their engineered polio virus, which they are testing in patients with glioblastoma, a deadly form of brain cancer. The treatment has been featured on the hit CBS News program 60 Minutes. Last year, biotech giant Amgen was the first to win FDA approval for an oncolytic virus, Imlygic (T-Vec), an engineered form of the herpesvirus used to treat some patients with melanoma.

Viruses of both human and animal origin will be in the spotlight at this year's ASH meeting. A group of scientists from France will present their research on using the measles virus to treat multiple myeloma. The team took multiple myeloma cells that have a mutated form of the cancer-associated gene p53 and infected them with the attenuated measles virus that’s used in a vaccine called Schwarz. They reported that the cells were sensitive to the vaccine and that they’re planning further research to unlock the molecular mechanism behind the response.