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Measles Shot May Fight Lymphoma

Vaccine works in mice; human trials are next

FRIDAY, June 8, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Few cancers are as deadly as lymphoma, which strikes the immune system and kills almost half of those who contract it. But new research suggests that a common measles vaccine could help patients turn back this stubborn disease.

Scientists are cautious about saying a cure is near. But it is clear that a human measles vaccine kills lymphoma cells in mice, in some cases eliminating the cancer entirely.

"In a lot of patients, for some reason, the cancer becomes invisible to the immune system," says Dr. Adele Fielding, a researcher at the Mayo Clinic, where the mice study was done. The vaccine "may give the stimulus for the immune system to come in and destroy the cells."

Lymphoma affects the lymph system, which helps run the body's defenses against foreign invaders like germs. There are two main types of the cancer, Hodgkin's disease and non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Medical officials estimate that almost 64,000 Americans will get lymphoma this year, and almost half of them will die. In a report issued on June 5, the National Cancer Institute found that the death rate from non-Hodgkin's disease is rising, even as death rates from other kinds of cancer decline.

Children are particularly prone to lymphoma and leukemia, a related disease.

Although the Mayo Clinic researchers are apparently the first scientists to use the measles vaccine to fight lymphoma, the idea of using viruses to fight cancer is not new.

Like many other vaccines, the measles vaccine is made up of a weakened strain of the actual disease it is designed to prevent.

The virus multiplies and inspires the body's immune system to jump into action and be ready to prevent any future incursions by the full-fledged disease.

The measles vaccine has been used for about three decades. There are some reports that lymphoma patients have recovered from their cancer after contracting measles, Fielding says.

Researchers infected mice with lymphoma and then treated them with high doses of the measles vaccine through injections into the bloodstream or the tumors themselves.

"In some cases, the tumors went away completely; in others, it led to a slowing of the growth of the tumor," Fielding says.

Apparently, the cancer cells offer a friendly environment to the measles virus, which quickly grows inside them and makes them more vulnerable, Fielding says.

The findings are reported in the June 15 issue of Blood, the journal of the American Society of Hematology.

Researchers plan to soon start a human trial involving eight lymphoma sufferers. "They'll have lymphoma that has failed the usual therapies," Fielding says.

The measles vaccine treatment is promising because it appears to be safe, she adds. "It's being administered to millions of people worldwide."

But doctors shouldn't give it to lymphoma patients now, she cautions. The traditional treatments include chemotherapy, radiation and bone marrow transplants.

"We have not proven that this works in people. We're going to proceed cautiously," Fielding says.

Vaccine treatment appears to hold "great promise," agrees Donna Shu, executive director of the Lymphoma Research Foundation of America.

Researchers are hopeful about other types of treatment in development, including gene therapy, she says.

What To Do

Learn about the different types of lymphoma in this fact sheet from the Lymphoma Research Foundation of America. Curious about what the lymph system does? Visit the Lymphoma Information Network.

You also might want to read previous HealthDay articles on lymphoma.

Go to Veritas Medicine to find out about clinical trials for the disease.

SOURCES: Interviews with Adele Fielding, M.D., Ph.D., researcher, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.; Donna Shu, executive director, Lymphoma Research Foundation of America, Los Angeles, Calif.; June 15, 2001 Blood
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