A deadly virus recruited to fight cancer

Lassa virus
Lassa virus

In 1969 Lassa fever almost killed Jordi Casals-Ariet, M.D., a renowned virologist at the School of Public Health. Now Yale scientists see the often-fatal virus as a possible cure for ovarian cancer. According to Anthony N. van den Pol, Ph.D., ’77, professor of neurosurgery, it’s “like using penicillin from a fungus to fight bacteria.” Many human tumors, van den Pol said, lack a strong innate immune response, making them susceptible to viruses. In mice, he found that a virus based on a combination of genes from Lassa virus and vesicular stomatitis virus was successful in treating experimental gliomas. Now he’s working with Gil Mor, M.D., Ph.D., professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences, to see whether it will have the same effect on ovarian cancer.

“A virus doesn’t have a brain, but it has an evolutionary mission to find cells to infect,” van den Pol said. “Viruses replicate and seek and destroy on their own. They don’t need to know where the tumors are but seem able to find most if not all of them by random ‘attempts’ at infection.”