Fighting fire with fire when it comes to disease

Would you ever consider getting sick to cure yourself of something else?

Would you ever consider getting sick to cure yourself of something else?

It might sound crazy, but it’s being done.

Cancer is a scary word. Those who hear it often think immediately of the worst case scenario. And those who are diagnosed with it often feel like they have been given a death sentence.

Sadly, many of them are. So many forms of cancer are treatable, but not necessarily curable. Instead, those treatments are really just buying time and delaying the inevitable.

However, science is getting closer to ending that trend with new breakthrough technologies. Some of these new treatments are actually using modified versions of diseases or other viruses to treat cancer.

In April of 2012, a little girl named Emma Whitehead was injected with a modified version of the HIV virus to treat her leukemia. While the virus was engineered so that it would no longer cause disease, it did make her very sick. In fact, for a time it looked as though Emma would die.

When Emma’s parents, Kari and Tom, enrolled her in the clinical trial for the treatment, Emma’s leukemia had already returned twice. They had tried everything and nothing had worked.

In short, Emma’s family was looking for a miracle.

Luckily, that’s what they got.

After a few days of near-death sickness, Emma’s fever suddenly disappeared. She woke up, and her leukemia was gone.

For his work on developing this cure, which has been used on other patients with similar dramatic effects, Dr. Carl June was presented with the Philadelphia Award this year. In a short film entitled Fire With Fire, which can be found almost anywhere online and tells the story of Emma and her dramatic recovery, June explains how the cure works.

Patients are injected with an engineered version of a virus, in Emma’s case, HIV, in order to train the immune system to recognize, attack and destroy cancer cells.

These infused cells have been dubbed “serial killer cells” by June and his team and each one is capable of killing 1,000 different tumour cells.

When Emma recovered after becoming seriously ill from the injection, what had happened is her cells had started attacking the cancer. In the end, it worked and today Emma lives a normal, healthy life.

Infecting someone with one disease to cure another is not new either.

For a brief time before the discovery of penicillin, the cure for syphilis was to give the patient malaria. The ‘method to the madness’ behind this peculiar treatment is that the pathogens that cause syphilis literally cannot survive the heat of a body with a malaria-induced fever.

In fact, this treatment won its discoverer, Julius Wagner-Jauregg, a Nobel Prize in 1927.

Other cancer treatments are being developed that use viruses as well.

Oncolytics Technology has developed a drug called REOLYSIN from a variant of the reovirus, a virus commonly found in small bodies of water that most humans have been exposed to by adulthood.

The virus is largely harmless, but can carry mild flu-like symptoms. Combined with treatments like chemo or radiation therapy, which make solid tumours “leaky,” REOLYSIN can enter and kill cancer cells without harming healthy cells.

While most modern treatments using viruses are engineered so as not to cause the diseases they usually do, it doesn’t mean patients can’t get sick from them. Responses of diseases, particularly cancer, to new treatments are unusual, unpredictable and often unprecedented.

Doctors have to make it clear to patients and patient families that they have no idea what will happen once these treatments are administered.

In the case of Emma, her parents were told that anything could happen once Emma was injected with the engineered virus. As it happened, she got very sick, but in the end it was worth it.

Emma’s story tells three things.

First, science is continuing to push forward and get closer to eliminating disease. Secondly, risking sickness, even death, is worth it to save a life.

And thirdly, it is never too early to start believing in miracles.