Tonight on ‘Catalyst’: Researchers work on a virus that may fight cancer

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Tonight on “Catalyst,” researchers explain a new science that involves tricking a live virus into becoming a tool to fight cancer.

Taking place within the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, researchers work with a virus that is deadly to rabbits but harmless to humans. They first experimented by injected cancerous mice with the live virus, and eventually the mice were rid of all signs of cancer.

Virus-driven immunotherapy is now being tested with human cancer patients like Andy Gordon who has a blood cancer disease called multiple myeloma. At the moment, it’s a cancer that has no cure and the average natural survival rate is five years.

Gordon’s first phase of treatment is a stem cell transplant. Dr. Joseph R. Mikhael, an oncologist who has been working with Gordon since his diagnosis nearly 10 years ago, explains that the transplant is “like burning the lawn to get rid of the weeds.” Stem cells from the patient’s bone marrow are collected, then given a high dose of chemotherapy which wipes out most of their bone marrow. The doctors are able to use the stem cells to to grow more bone marrow.

“What a stem cell transplant does for you is it puts you into complete remission,” Gordon says. “There’s no detectable cancer in your body, but sort of emphasis on the word detectable, because it is there somewhere. At some point it will recur.”

Mikhael told Gordon he wouldn’t be having another transplant because by the time he would need one, there would be new technology and treatments. The doctor says that if they couldn’t find a way to cure the cancer, then they would find a way to control it.

Virus-driven immunotherapy is now being used at Mayo Clinic to treat multiple myeloma.

TED SIMONS: YOU BET. WHEN YOU HEAR THE WORD VIRUS, YOU THINK OF ILLNESS AND DISEASE, BUT THE ARIZONA PBS SHOW, CATALYST FOUND A RESEARCHER, WHO MIGHT JUST CHANGE YOUR MIND ABOUT VIRUSES. STEVE FILMER IS THE EXCUTIVE PRODUCER OF CATALYST AND HE’S HERE WITH A LOOK AHEAD AT THIS STORY. WHAT EXACTLY ARE WE TALKING ABOUT HERE.
STEVE FILMER: WHEN YOU HEAR THE WORD VIRUS YOU THINK OF BAD THINGS, AND WHEN YOU MENTION CANCER, AND YOU PROBABLY PICTURE SOMETHING EVEN WORSE. WELL RESEARCHERS AT THE BIODESIGN INSTITUTE HERE IN ARIZONA ARE WORKING ON A WAY THAT A VIRUS COULD BE TRICKED IN TO BECOMING A TOOL TO FIGHT CANCER. IT'S A FASCINATING STORY THAT INVOLVES RABITS, MICE AND A DISEASE CALLED MULTIPLE MYELOMA.
ANDY GORDON: JUST IMAGINE A DOCTOR TELLING YOU, YOU HAVE CANCER FOR WHICH THERE IS NO CURE AND THE NATURAL SURVIVAL RATE, THE AVERAGE SURVIVAL RATE IS FIVE YEARS.
VANESSA RUIZ: THAT NEWS WAS DEVISTATING FOR ANDY GORDON.
ANDY GORDON: I STARTED TO FEEL SOME PAINS, FELT LIKE I PULLED A MUSCLE OR SOMETHING IN THE CHEST. I'M AN ACTIVE CYCLIST. I THOUGHT, ATHLETHIC INJURY, MIDDLE AGED GUY OVERDOING IT.
VANESSA RUIZ: HE WAS FIT, HEALTHY AND ACTIVE. HIS DIAGNOSIS, MULTIPLE MYELOMA. A CANCER OF THE BLOOD. THE DIAGNOSIS IS BOTH SURPRISING AND HAUNTING FOR HIM.
ANDY GREEN: HE SAYS IT WILL TAKE MORE TESTS TO KNOW FOR SURE, BUT WE THINK YOU HAVE A FORM OF BLOOD CANCER KNOWN AS MULTIPLE MYELOMA, DO YOU KNOW WHAT THAT IS? AND I LOOKED AT HIM AND I SAID OH MY GOD, MY FIRST WIFE DIED OF MULTIPLE MYELOMA 12 YEARS BEFORE.
JOSEPH R. MIKHAEL: I HAVE HAD THE PRIVILEGE OF TAKING CARE OF ANDY, REALLY TAKING CARE OF HIS DIAGNOSIS ALMOST TEN YEARS AGO NOW. HIS TREATMENT WAS FAIRLY STANDARD AT THE TIME. HE UNDERWENT A STEM CELL TRANSPLANT. WE GIVE HIM A HIGH DOSE OF CHEMOTHERAPY. BECAUSE THAT CHEMOTHERAPY WOULD WIPE OUT ALL OF HIS BONE MARROW, IMMEDIATELY BEFORE WE GIVE HIM THAT CHEMOTHERAPY, WE COLLECT STEM CELLS FROM HIS BONE MARROW THAT CAN GROW A NEW ONE. SO IT'S LIKE BURNING THE LAWN TO GET RID OF THE WEEDS. WE BURNT THE LAWN, BUT WE COLECTED SEEDS TO MAKE SURE WE COULD GROW A NEW LAWN.
ANDY GREEN: WHAT THE STEM CELL TRANSPLANT DOES IS PUT YOU IN REMISSION. THERE IS NO DETECTABLE CANCER, BUT THERE IS SORT OF EMPHASIS ON THE WORD DETECTABLE. IT'S THERE SOMEWHERE, AND AT SOME POINT, IT WILL RECUR. I SAID TO JOE WHEN THIS COMES BACK, AND WE KNOW IT WILL, WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? WELL, YOU ARE NOT GOING TO HAVE ANOTHER TRANSPLANT. TRANSPLANTS WILL BE SO YESTERDAY BY THAT POINT.
JOSEPH R. MIKHAEL: LOOKING TO HIS FUTURE, I'M CONFIDENT THAT WE'LL USE BE ABLE TO USE THE APPROACHES AND NEWER TREATMENTS THAT WE ARE NOW ENGAGED WITH. WE ARE ALSO DEVELOPING ALL NEW MOLECULES AND NEW APPROCAHES WHERE WE CAN ATTACK THE DISEASE FROM DIFFERENT WAYS. EVEN IF WE CAN'T CURE IT, WE CAN CONTROL IT IN THE LONGER TERM.
VANESSA RUIZ: AT THE LEADING EDGE OF RESEARCH FOR CURES TO MULTIPLE MYELOMA IS WORK GOING ON HERE INSIDE THE BIODESIGN INSTITUTE AT ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY,
GRANT MCFADDEN: VIRAL THERAPY IS THE USE OF A LIVE VIRUS HARMLESS FOR HUMANS BY ITSELF, BUT HAS THE CAPACITY TO REPLICATE IN TUMOR TISSUES AND EFFECT AND KILL TUMOR TISSUES BUT NOT HURT THE HOST.
VANESSA RUIZ: HERE’S THE BIG IDEA. COULD A VIRUS THAT IS DEVASTATING TO RABBITS, BE TRICKED IN TO BECOMING A POTENTIAL LIFESAVER FOR HUMANS?
GRANT MCFADDEN: I WANTED TO STUDY A VIRUS THAT HAD AN EFFECT OUT THERE IN THE WORLD BUT WAS HARMLESS TO PEOPLE. I PICKED A RABBIT VIRUS THAT AUSTRALIANS USED MORE THAN 70 YEARS AGO TO TRY AND KILL FERRELL EUROPEAN RABBITS THAT HAD GONE CRAZY IN AUSTRALIA.
VANESSA RUIZ: THE NAME OF THAT VIRUS, MYXOMA.
GRANT MCFADDEN: THE LETHAL DOSE IT TAKES TO KILL A HUNDRED PERCENT OF THE ANIMALS IS A SINGLE INFECTIOUS UNIT. WHICH MEANS IF YOU ARE A RABIT, AS SOON AS ANY CELL, OR ANY SURFACE OF YOUR BODY IS INFECTED WITH THIS VIRUS, YOU DIE WITH 99.9 CERTAINTY WITHIN TWO WEEKS AFTER THE INFECTION. YOU CAN THINK OF IT AS THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE FOR RABBITS. ONE OF THE THINGS WE STUMBLED UPON IS THAT THE VIRUS CAN REPLICATE IN HUMAN CANCER CELLS. BUT IT IS HARMELESS FOR MICE, HUMANS AND ANY OTHER VERTEBRAE ORGANISMS WE KNOW OF. ONE OF THE THINGS WE STUMBLED ON IS THAT THE VIRUS CAN SOMETIMES REPLICATE IN CERTAIN HUMAN CANCER CELLS. IN OTHER WORDS, THE CANCER CELLS LOST THEIR ABILITY TO DEFEND THEMSELVES AGAINST THIS KIND OF VIRUS. THIS GOT US TO THE QUESTION, CAN WE USE THE VIRUS AS A LIVE DRUG TO TREAT RECIPIENTS THAT GOT CANCER IF THE VIRUS IS HARMLESS TO THE HOST BUT DANGEROUS FOR THE ACTUAL CANCER TISSUE? WHEN WE FIRST REALIZED THAT THIS VIRUS WOULD GROW VERY WELL IN HUMAN CNCER CELLS, WE WERE NOT A CANCER LAB AT THE TIME, AND WE WENT LOOKING FOR COLLABORATORS TO HELP US TEST WHETHER OR NOT WE COULD USE THIS VIRUS TO ACTUALLY TREAT AND CURE CANCER IN A TEST ANIMAL HOST THAT HAS CANCER.
VANESSA RUIZ: MCFADDEN CONNECTED WITH A RESEARCHER WHO WAS WORKING WITH THE BRAIN TISSUE OF MICE.
STEVE MCFADDEN: HE SAID WHY DON'T YOU GIVE ME SOME OF YOUR MAGIC VIRUS, AND WE'LL INJECT IT INTO MICE IMPANTED WITH HUMAN GLEOBLASTOMA, WHICH IS ONE OF THE REALLY HORRIBLE HUMAN CANCERS. SO THE VIRUS, WHEN IT WAS INJECTED IN TO THE BRAINS OF THESE MICE, GREW OUT THROUGH THE TUMOR TISSUE, STOP GROWING WHEN IT HIT NORMAL BRAIN TISSUE, THE TUMOR STARTED TO DIE AND WHEN ALL THE TUMOR WERE GONE IN THE MICE, THE VRIUS VANISHED BECAUSE IT NO LONGER HAD CELLS THAT IT COULD GROW IN. SO WE WERE ABLE TO BASICALLY CURE 100% OF THE MICE, AND AT THE TIME OF SACRIFICE, ALL OF THE GLEOBLASTOMA WAS GONE. HERE IN ARIZONA, WE STARTED A NEW COLLABORATION WITH ON MULTIPLE MYELMA WITH THE MYELOMA EXPERTS AT THE MAYO CLINIC IN SCOTTSDALE. ONE OF THE THINGS WE ARE EXPLORING IS CAN WE ADD THIS VIRUS TO A BONE MARROW TRANSPLANT AND KILL EVERY LAST CANCER CELL IN THAT PATIENTS BODY AT THE TIME OF TRANSPLANT.
VANESS RUIZ: IMAGINE IF A VIRUS, LIKE MYXOMA VIRUS, COULD BE THE TOOL ZEROED IN ON CANCER IN ANDY GORDON'S MYELOMA.
ANDY GORDON: SINCE I WAS DIAGNOSED THE FIRST TIME, I HAVE DONE MORE THAN 10 OR 1200 MILE BIKE RIDES AND COMPETING. I’M STILL WORKING FULLTIME. YOU CAN HAVE A FULL LIFE. I’VE SEE THE BIRTH OF BOTH OF OUR GRANDCHILDREN. I'M WATCHING THEM GROW UP. THAT’S THE STUFF TO LOOK FORWARD TO AND SCREW THE CANCER.
STEVE FILMER: THERE IS A NAME FOR THE NEW MEDICINE. IT’S CALLED VIRUS DRIVEN IMMUNOTHERAPY. SOME ARE ALREADY ASKING IF IT COULD BE USED TO MAKE CUSTOM BUILT TREATMENTS FOR OTHER FORMS OF CANCER, TED.
TED SIMONS: THAT'S A FASCINATING STORY. THAT’S GREAT. SO YOU CAN CATHC A FULL EPISODE OF CATALYST TONIGHT AT NINE O’CLOCK RIGHT HERE ON ARIZONA PBS. AND THURSDAY, HEAR FROM THE AUTHOR OF WORK OF FICTION BASED ON THE EXPERIENCES OF THOSE WHO SPENT TIME IN THE INDIAN SCHOOL SYSTEM. WE TAKE YOU TO THE ARIZONA SCIENCE CENTER FOR EXHIBIT IN POMPE. THAT'S THURSDAY ON "ARIZONA HORIZON." THAT'S IT FOR NOW. I'M TED SIMONS. THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR WATCHING. YOU HAVE A GREAT EVENING.

Steve Filmer: Executive Producer, Catalyst
Andy Gordon: Multiple Myeloma Patient
Dr. Joseph R. Mikhael, M.D.: Oncologist
Grant McFadden: Director, Biodesign Center for Immunotherapy, Vaccines and Virotherapy

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