With the outbreak of measles in New York City and Washington State (and Houston and Europe, and Madagascar and Venezuela), certain misinformation has started to be floated by anti-vaccine groups claiming that measles kills cancer. As with most misinformation, , it is an oversimplification and/or misunderstanding of previous research on immunotherapy and other technologies that use viruses and vaccine science to combat cancer. So let’s break it down, shall we?
How Viruses Work
The first thing we need to understand is how viruses work. Viruses cannot multiply by themselves. They need our cells’ machinery to multiply. So they infect our cells and release their genetic material into them. Our cells then look at that genetic material and read it, thinking it’s our own. The cells then follow the genes’ instructions and make new viruses. Those new viruses spread to nearby cells and the process continues until…
Before we go into what stops the process, we need to understand that viruses are very specific on what cells they target. Hepatitis viruses target our livers. They like to multiply in our livers. HIV likes the T cells of our immune system. The flu loves our respiratory system and so on. Our cells make up our tissues and tissues make up our organs. Viruses “know” which organs to attack because each organ’s cells has specific proteins on its surface to which the viruses attach.
Okay, so back to what stops the viral spread inside of us. We have these “killer” cells roaming around and inspecting cells all the time. If a cell is not ours, it gets destroyed with chemicals and then another type of cell comes along and eats it. Or, if a virus or bacteria is covered in antibodies, it also gets gobbled up.
A Simple Way of Looking at Cancer
So what happens when our own cells go out of control and multiply like crazy, which is what cancer is? Cancer goes out of control because our immune systems sees cancer cells and gets confused. “Hey, guys, I know you’re lung cells but now you’re in the brain… but I know you’re part of us, so I’m going to leave you alone.”
This is not always the case. Most cells that go awry also change their surface proteins and are recognized as faulty by our immune system. That’s why most of us don’t get cancer though our cells multiply pretty fast. (Think of how fast your mouth heals from eating something too hot. It’s like a day and done.)
Put It All Together
Alright, so the viruses multiply inside our cells and come out of the cell by killing it and bursting it open. Right before the cell dies, it releases a chemical saying, “Uh, something is wrong. Come check me out.” The immune system comes over, detects the viruses and begins a scorched earth approach to ending the disease. They kill any and all nearby cells. They release antibodies as well that are attached to cells signaling that they are harboring viruses.
This can be a limited engagement and you get a sore throat, or a viral lesion on your skin. Or it can be a “screw it, burn it all” approach and you get pneumonia or encephalitis or multi-organ failure. It’s as much from the virus killing your cells to multiply as it is your immune system going nuclear. This is why they prescribe prednisone, a steroid that calms down inflammation from your immune system, when you get pneumonia.
Alright, so we know this… Measles multiplies like crazy and travels from your respiratory system to the rest of your body, including the bone marrow. That’s why you get a body wide rash, aches and pains all over, and you feel crappy.
Not Measles… Designer Measles
Scientists designed a measles virus that is nothing like what’s in the vaccine or our in the wild making people sick. It’s a designer measles. They programmed it to attack only certain cells and invade them to multiply. In this case, cancer cells. It goes in, spreads through all the cancer cells anywhere they are found, and – get this – part of the designer measles code is to have the cancer cell make a surface protein that alerts the immune system that it’s a bad cell. So the cancer cell no longer looks like a regular cell and is no longer ignored. Between the designer measles bursting the cancer cells open while multiplying and also tagging them for destruction, the cancer is eliminated.
But that was a designer virus in only a handful of trial participants with a specific cancer that would be infected by the designer measles. (Remember that cells are very picky on which cells they infect.) We are still a bit off from an actual cure for all the other forms of cancer out there. Maybe one day they’ll use the flu to target lung cancer or hepatitis A to target liver cancer?
(All .gif clips are from the Once Upon a Time… Life videos.)
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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