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How can we use viruses against cancer?

22 September 2020

KWF grant of 2 million euros for three UMCG cancer studies

Is it possible to reprogram our immune system against viruses in such a way that it recognizes and attacks cancer cells? KWF Kankerbestrijding (The Dutch Cancer Society) is investing 2 million euros in three cancer studies at the UMCG to answer these and other questions. The studies will start in 2021. In total, KWF invests 27 million euros is in Dutch cancer research.

Using viruses against cancer

Most people get the cytomegalovirus (CMV) as a child. Mostly, they don’t get sick, but they do develop a strong defense against it. The virus remains in the body after the first infection, only to flare up briefly during life. Because the immune cells in the body are trained against the virus, it immediately stops this activity.

UMCG professor Wijnand Helfrich starts a research to find out if it’s possible to target these immune cells on cancer cells. The plan is to use an agent that attaches specifically to cancer cells and makes them look like active CMV-viruses to the immune system. The goal is to find out if this method is feasible and safe to develop into patient studies.

Leukemia, metabolism and DNA damage

Recent UMCG research shows that there are big differences in the metabolism of acute myeloid leukemia cells. For example, some malignant cells are highly dependent on certain nutrients for their survival. UMCG professor Jan Jacob Schuringa elaborates on these results and is now investigating the different dependencies of various AML cells. He hopes to work towards a new form of treatment in which the supply of these essential substances is cut off.

The third UMCG project is about how cancer cells deal with DNA damage prior to and during cell division. While healthy cells first neatly repair DNA damage, cancer cells work a lot sloppier. UMCG professor Marcel van Vugt is studying how cancer cells guide themselves through this process. As cancer cells with too much DNA damage die, or become more sensitive to chemotherapy and radiation, knowledge of this cell division process can eventually contribute to more effective cancer treatments.

Powerful impetus

KWF director Fred Falkenburg is happy with the new research: “The corona pandemic has disrupted cancer care considerably. Population studies were halted, care was avoided and treatments were postponed. That is not without consequences. By funding dozens of new studies, we are giving an important and powerful impetus to fighting that other pandemic: cancer. Thanks to our donors, KWF can continue to make a difference. ”