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April/May 2013


For many years, breast cancer has been the most common – and feared – disease to affect women. But times may be changing as another malignancy is beginning to take the fore: lung cancer. Research published in Annals of Oncology this February predicts that lung cancer will overtake breast cancer as the bigger killer of European women by 2015 (based on World Health Organisation mortality data). This is already true in the UK and Poland – the two EU countries with the highest lung cancer death rates. Thankfully, overall cancer deaths have fallen by 6% in

men and 4% in women since 2009, but lung cancer deaths have risen by 7% in women in that time. Breast cancer rates have been falling due to advances in early diagnosis and treatment of that disease, while the increase in lung cancer probably reflects changing cultural attitudes in the 60s and 70s, which led to more women starting to smoke at that time. However, because fewer young European women are now smoking, lung cancer rates should start to level off by around 2020.


Meanwhile, scientists all over the world are busily studying what they hope might turn out to be a complete revolution in cancer treatment. Their resurgent confidence in the battle against cancer comes from an unlikely source – viral infections. The past few years has seen a surge of interest in oncolytic viruses. A virus – like those that cause the flu – reproduces by hi-jacking human cells to make copies of itself, which then go on to invade other cells, destroying more human cells in the process. Oncolytic viruses are infections that target cancer cells, giving a potential ‘viral therapy’. Naturally occurring oncolytic viruses were discovered over half a century ago, but they haven’t really done the trick – either because they were harmful, or our immune system killed them better than they killed cancer. But modern genetic engineering techniques mean that scientists are now custom-building viruses to attack cancer. They can be tweaked genetically to

target specific types of cancer cells, to be less vulnerable to the immune system, or to suppress cancer growth. The first of these to be approved for use was Oncorine in China in 2005, and a treatment derived from the Herpes simplex virus, OncoVEX GM-CSF, has also shown promise in clinical trials. Now, a genetically-engineered form of vaccinia virus (with the futuristic name JX594) has been shown to prolong the lives of people with terminal liver cancer. Of 30 patients tested, 16 on a high dose survived for 14.1 months – double that of those on a lower dose. The trial, published in Nature Medicine in February, also found both high and low doses decreased blood flow to tumours and reduced their size. As well as replicating inside and destroying cancer cells, the virus stimulated the body’s immune system to attack the cancer – providing a two-pronged assault. The only side-effects tended to be a day or two of

G U R U • I S S U E 1 1 • A P R I L / M AY 2 0 1 3 • PA G E 1 8

(Smoking) Flick • zenera, (Cancer Bullet) Flickr • TipsTimes


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