The Big IF in Cancer

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In the years since, Merigan and his Stanford team have successfully used IF to treat shingles and chicken pox in cancer patients. In other studies, IF has prevented the recurrence of CMV, a chronic viral disease that sometimes endangers newborn babies and kidney- transplant patients. Israeli doctors have also used IF eyedrops to combat a contagious and incapacitating viral eye infection commonly known as "pink eye." Researchers are now trying a combination of IF and the antiviral drug ara-A in patients with chronic hepatitis B infections. Interferon investigators have high hopes that the drug will be equally active against other viral diseases.

The concept that IF might also be effective against cancer may have occurred spontaneously to several researchers after the work of Isaacs and Lindenmann was confirmed. After all, it had already been shown that some animal cancers were caused by the polyoma virus. Though no human cancer virus has yet been definitely identified, some tumors seem to be linked to viral infections. In recent years, for example, it has been shown that women with the genital disease caused by the herpes type II virus are more likely to develop cervical cancer than those who are free of that virus.

One scientist was an American, Harvard-trained Ion Gresser, at the Institut de Recherches Scientifiques sur le Cancer in Villejuif, France. He made his own interferon by injecting viruses into the brains of laboratory mice; that stimulated the production of IF. After mashing the brains and processing them, he was left with a crude but potent solution of interferon. He gave the IF to a group of mice injected with a virus that causes leukemia, a blood cancer. After a month, the interferon-treated mice were in good health; those in an untreated control group had leukemia. Gresser then went on to demonstrate that IF actually prevented leukemia in mice that had been specially bred to develop it. Says he: "The interferon inhibited the multiplication of tumor cells."

News of Gresser's work inspired Hans Strander, a cancer doctor at Stockholm's Karolinska Institute, who had gone to Helsinki to work with Cantell in the '60s and had done his doctoral dissertation on IF production. In 1972, using IF from Cantell's lab, Strander began injecting it into children with osteogenic sarcoma, a rare and deadly form of bone cancer. Conventional treatment of this disease is to amputate the affected limb, in the hope that the cancer has not yet metastasized. In most cases, that hope is futile. Without additional treatment, the cancer spreads rapidly to body organs, killing almost 80% of its victims within two years. Strander has now treated 44 of these patients with IF after surgery. More than half are alive after five years (in a group that did not get IF, less than 25% are alive).

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