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Should we use viruses as the good guys?

This week's BMJ has a piece by a group of researchers called "Fighting cancer with oncolytic viruses" which questions the safety of using viruses in this way.

The idea is to use viruses to introduce genes to treat many disorders, including heart disease, autoimmune disease, and cancer,. A few thousand patients, nearly all cancer sufferers, have been treated
so far.

At first, viruses which do not replicate (multiply) in the patient were used, but now the trend is towards using replicating viruses which are injected directly into the tumours to destroy them.

Initially, the viruses were ones that normally infect humans, but recently there has been a trend towards using animal viruses. These require genetic modirication to make them infective to humans.
That is, their capacity to induce immunity in the host (i.e. us) is removed. This procedure is termed, significantly, ¿arming¿ the virus.

The authors, who are all experts in this kind of research, think that the possible dangers have not received sufficient attention. A virus armed in this way might have bad effects on the patient
receiving it: for example, by inducing autoimmune disease. This has already happend to some extent.

There are also risks for the general population, An engineered virus of this kind might ¿escape¿ and infect large numbers of people.

Reference: Chernajovsky Y, Layward L, Lemoine L. Fighting Cancer with oncolytic viruses. BMJ 2006;332:170-2.


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