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Using viruses to help battle cancer

The Cancer Gene Therapy Group at the University of Helsinki is focusing on the use of gene therapy and oncolytic viruses to improve the treatment of cancers for which effective modalities do not yet exist. The Group’s work and that of its director, Akseli Hemminki, has already saved some terminally ill patients and extended the life expectancy of others.

The potential of viruses to combat cancer has been realised for many years, as scientists back in the nineteenth century knew that the contraction of viral diseases could slow the progress of cancer once established. Thanks to the progress made in molecular biology over the last couple of decades, however, it is now becoming possible to harness the power of viruses for therapeutic purposes.

By modifying the genetic makeup of certain viruses, researchers at the University of Helsinki’s Cancer Gene Therapy Group have been able to produce variants that target and destroy a range of cancerous cells without harming adjacent healthy tissue.

As these modified viruses only spread within tumours, they can be administered in large quantities at a time, unlike many other forms of treatment, which require repeated doses. One dose of genetically engineered virus material can include as many 2 trillion particles, massively more than the 200 or so normally needed in nature to give people a fever, for example.

Real progress

Despite his youth, Professor Akseli Hemminki has become a leading light in the cancer research field, and he has been the recipient of a number of Finnish awards as well as the European Society of Gene and Cell Therapy’s Young Investigator Award and the American Society of Gene & Cell Therapy’s Outstanding New Investigator Award.
Photo: Veikko Somerpuro.
Laboratory studies have confirmed the efficacy of the modified viruses in killing cancer cells, and their use has been extended to human patients on an experimental basis over the last couple of years. A total of around 130 patients for whom conventional therapies could offer no further hope have received treatment so far, and around half have benefited. In a couple of cases, their tumours have disappeared altogether.

It is still much too early to say whether we are seeing the emergence of a new cure for cancer, however. What is clear, however, is that this viral approach to cancer treatment can already extend patients’ life expectancy and alleviate their symptoms, which in itself is something of an achievement.

Clinical trials will be needed to establish the full potential of this type of treatment, as it has so far been used only as a ‘last resort’ therapy rather than at an earlier stage in the disease’s progression, when it might well be more effective.

To smooth the way for clinical trials, which require significantly more funding than is currently available to the Cancer Gene Therapy Group for research purposes, Professor Hemminki and a group of partners set up Oncos Therapeutics recently. This is set to play an important part in building on the existing strong evidence of the potency of the treatment that has been developed, together with the extensive intellectual property rights that have been established as part of research.

Nearly 4,000 researchers and teachers work at the University of Helsinki on four campuses in Helsinki and in 19 other localities. Photo: www.korttelit.fi

One of Europe’s leading universities

The University of Helsinki is one of the oldest universities in Europe. Founded in 1640 in Turku, it was relocated to Helsinki in 1828. Today’s university, with 11 faculties, is the country’s most capable research university and is ranked among the top 10 or 15 in Europe. A total of 35,000 degree students are enrolled, with another 60,000 engaged in extension studies or courses at the open university. Nearly 4,000 researchers and teachers work on four campuses in Helsinki and 19 other localities. An average of 5,000 degrees are awarded annually, of which around 470 are doctorates.

The university concentrates on high-level scientific research and training researchers; and research plays an important part in underpinning the teaching provided by the university. Close to 10,000 scientific articles or monographs are published annually by the university’s researchers. The university is a partner in over half of Finland national and Nordic Centres of Excellence in Research, and is the only Finnish university to have been invited to join the League of European Research Universities.

Priority areas

The Cancer Gene Therapy Group at the University of Helsinki is focusing on the following areas to help treat a variety of cancers, from ovarian and metastatic breast cancer to lung, gastric, kidney, and pancreatic cancer:

  • Targeting adenoviruses to tumours
  • Oncolytic adenoviruses and other oncolytic
    viruses and arming them for improved efficacy
  • Imaging gene therapy agents and tumour models
  • Combining gene therapy with other forms of
  • Enhancing the systemic delivery of gene therapy
  • Stem cells and cancer stem cells.
> Written by Juha Merimaa for University of Helsinki
(Published in HighTech Finland 2010)