Cancer is caused by abnormal behavior in cells, so it's helpful to understand the difference between a healthy cell and a cancerous cell. Cancer cells are set apart by a few characteristics, including unchecked growth and reproduction. Healthy cells will stop reproducing when they receive signals from nearby cells to do so; cancer cells no longer respond to these signals. Most cells will also cease dividing and reproducing if there's an error in their DNA (known as a mutation), electing to undergo apoptosis, or cell suicide. Cancerous cells, by contrast, reproduce despite the damaged DNA and take on powers of immortality instead of dying off. And, finally, while healthy cells will stay put, cancerous cells will move randomly around the body, spreading cancer and making it more difficult to treat.
With such, well, cancerous behavior displayed in cancer cells, the idea of curing cancer can seem a long way off indeed. However, research inroads continue to be made. Take, for example, the fight against brain cancer. Several unrelated tests have explored whether a virus can fight brain cancer. Cancer in the human brain is notoriously difficult to treat with surgery, because digging around in the brain is dangerous, so researchers have been looking for alternative treatments. As we have just seen, cancer involves the uncontrolled growth of "bad" cells, and viruses attack cells, so the idea came up to use viruses to attack cancer cells. Yale University conducted a test using a rabies virus, and two hospitals have been experimenting with a herpes simplex virus. All experiments have shown some success at killing brain tumors.
Researchers at Cedars-Sinai Hospital, meanwhile, have conducted tests using the herpes simplex virus to fight brain cancer, but with a twist: they want to encourage the body's immune system to fight cancer. Once all of the harmful properties were removed from the virus, the researchers then injected the virus along with two proteins. The purpose of the virus is to carry these proteins to the cancer cells. The first protein's cells serve as antigen presenters, which alert the immune system. The second protein is a type of herpes simplex, which can kill the tumors once it's mixed with a drug called gancyclovir. As the herpes simplex attacks the cancer cells, another message tells the immune system that antigens are present. The immune system can then bring its own attack to the location where the antigens are present -- that is, the cancer cells.
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