Skip to content
Surprising Science

Scientists Program Viruses to Attack Cancer

Because cancerous cells are worse at defending against viruses than healthy cells, medical scientists across the country are working to modify viruses to specifically target cancer. 

What’s the Latest Development?

Clinical trials currently underway hint at a potentially promising future for viruses that have been engineered to attack cancerous cells in the body. A retooled form of vaccinia, the viral agent that helped eradicate smallpox, is being used against liver cancer, the third leading cause of death globally. Patients treated with high doses of the virus had double the survival rates of those treated with lower doses. “To see that kind of response in a randomized trial is simply unheard of,” said Tony Reid, the director of clinical investigation at the Moores Cancer Center of the University of California, San Diego.

What’s the Big Idea?

Scientists have known that viruses help fight cancer since 1904, when doctors witnessed that women with cervical cancer went into remission after being given a rabies vaccination. Because medicine was still at a relatively primitive state, a series of wild experiments followed in which physicians injected live viruses into cancer patients: “They tried infecting terminally ill children with polio and adenovirus. They injected patients with concoctions from the feces of normal children, from sick chickens, and from ‘feline spleen suspension’ of rural kittens infected with ‘cat plague.'”

Photo credit:


Up Next