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What Is Virotherapy?

Viruses can be reprogrammed to treat disease.
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  • Written By: T. Carrier
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 16 September 2014
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Virotherapy is a unique form of biotechnology treatment. Reprogramming a virus is the main objective behind virotherapy. Specifically, a virus such as adenovirus is programmed so that it becomes a beneficial substance that combats cancer or other types of disease cells within the body. In addition, viruses may be used to invoke certain bodily immune responses.

The wider field of biotechnology encompasses virotherapy, and individuals employed in this large discipline make use of live organisms to create beneficial products and applications for humanity. Biotechnology has found a place in engineering, manufacturing, and particularly in the medical world. Virotherapy uses organisms known as viruses. These tiny beings consist of a protein coat and genetic material containing either ribonucleic acid (RNA)or deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). Viruses can only reproduce inside of living cells, and they are often responsible for various infectious diseases.

In viroterhapy, however, viruses are converted into beneficial agents. This approach began gaining traction in the 1950s when physicians noticed an interesting trend. Patients diagnosed with cancer began showing health improvements, and these patients had one thing in common: they had all recently been afflicted with some type of viral infection. Researchers who began investigating this phenomenon eventually theorized that the infection triggered a release of certain types of proteins that attacked foreign substances in the body, including cancer cells.

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Some practitioners disagree about the most effective method for viral combat. One group holds that the beneficial properties of viruses result from the immune response — such as lymph node and immune cell activation — the viruses evoke from the body. As such, the immune system should be bolstered to promote virotherapy. Another group emphasizes the role of the tumor itself in directly attacking the cancer cells. These proponents argue that the immune system should be dampened in virotherapy, so that the virus can perform its task unabated.

In many viral experimental cancer treatments, for example, viruses are programmed by scientists to only target cancerous cells; healthy cells are left undisturbed. Researchers typically achieve this aim by either changing the virus' protein coats to target certain cells or by eliminating its capacity to reproduce inside of non-cancerous cells. The virus then begins to replicate itself inside the cancerous cells, where it breaks down the cells in a process known as lysis. Proponents advocate this approach over other treatment types because viruses can replicate quickly. Therefore, viral approaches do not require high and potentially side effect-heavy concentrations of the substance.

Several viruses have been investigated in regards to virotherapy, particularly types containing RNA material as opposed to DNA material. A virus commonly found in the gastrointestinal tract, RIGVIR, has been used for or skin cancer treatments. Variations of herpes and smallpox-related viruses have been utilized as well. Perhaps the most common virus associated with virotherapy is adenovirus, otherwise known as the common cold virus.

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