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From Zombie Pigeons to Cancer Treatment: When Bad Viruses Turn Good

Updated on September 3, 2013

Zombie pigeons

Recently, an outbreak of an avian virus has infected the pigeons of Moscow. Groups of pigeons have begun to display erratic behavior such as stumbling around, flying into things, ignoring oncoming humans and vehicles, or simply falling from the sky. Many of them have displayed a lethargic, droopy-headed, shambling stumble-walk similar to the usual portrayal of zombie walks.

Rather than being zombie pigeons, these birds are infected with Newcastle disease virus (NDV). NDV is both highly contagious and has a fatality rate of up to 100% in unvaccinated flocks. The symptoms are dependent on any one of a number of factors including the type of avian species, the particular NDV strain, concurrent disease, and preexisting immunity. In fact, even vaccinated birds can become infected with NDV. It is so virulent that many birds may contract the disease and die without ever showcasing symptoms.

There is currently no known treatment for Newcastle disease.

NDV in humans

NDV isn’t limited to just pigeons, poultry stock or other birds. A full 96% of the human population is susceptible to the disease. As scary as this sounds (who really wants to be walking around in a daze, bumping into things and falling over?) this shouldn’t be cause for serious alarm. In humans, the majority of symptoms are relatively minor. Symptoms may manifest as a runny nose, laryngitis, or conjunctivitis. Perhaps not the most pleasant of circumstances but far better than the aforementioned ‘zombie-like’ attitude that tends to precursor mortality in a multitude of the flying faction.

But, here’s the rub. NDV, fatal and highly contagious in birds, replicates more easily in human cancer cells than in regular human cells.

Keep reading, it’s about to get interesting.

The technical stuff

Strains of NDV are classified as either lytic or nonlytic. The term lytic means that it causes the disruptive destruction of cells. The lytic strains of NDV appear to directly kill cancer cells. Even the nonlytic strains of NDV kill the cancerous cells, albeit more slowly, by interfering with the cell metabolism. Again, they do this because they more easily replicate in human cancer cells as opposed to normal human cells. In the simplest terms possible, NDV actually prefers human cancer cells over normal cells and not by just a miniscule factor. NDV will reproduce itself in cancer cells as much as a 10,000 times better than in normal cells.

One of the major points here is that Newcastle disease is primarily an avian virus. This means that humans generally do not have a preexisting immunity to the virus. The vast majority (96%) of the population does not have the ability to keep from contracting this viral disease.

Where might this be going?



A cure for cancer?

Because humans are susceptible to this disease and because the disease targets human cancer cells, there exists the possibility that NDV might be utilized as an anti-cancer therapy. NDV might be a possible cure for cancer.

Read it again.

This highly contagious, virulent, zombie-making, mortality-inducing, avian-specific Newcastle virus disease might just be the caped-crusader, the knight-in-shining armor, and the hero in disguise for those suffering from various forms of cancer. Cancer is the second largest cause of death in the United States, overshadowed only by cardiac arrest. There are more than 100 types of cancer.

There have already been numerous clinical studies on the effects of NDV-based anti-cancer therapies. Clinical studies go beyond mere research and are characterized by the usage of actual humans. Generally speaking, clinical studies are performed when a drug or treatment exhibit enough potential after research, laboratory, and animal studies to warrant further investigation. NDV is at the point of investigation.

Enough laboratory trials have been done at this point to isolate the effects of different strains of NDV on different types of cancer. For instance, one particular strain of NDV (Roakin) has been shown to kill B-cell lymphoma cells in a Hodgkin lymphoma patient five times faster than it kills normal, resting (non-dividing) white blood cells. Additionally, another strain (Italien) has been shown to kill breast, larynx, and squamous cell lung carcinoma but not cervical carcinoma.

Numerous clinical studies have already been conducted in the United States, Canada, Germany, Hungary, and China. While the majority have been phase I and phase II clinical trials, early indications appear positive.

Possible limitations

Interestingly enough, two of the largest bonuses of using NDV as an anti-cancer therapy are also two of its biggest limitations. Because NDV can be used against a large variety of cancers, it does not need to be targeted toward specific tumors. However, because it is pervasive, it becomes difficult to utilize NDV as a tumor-specific receptor. Additionally, because of the avian nature of the virus, the vast majority of the population does not have an auto-immune response to NDV. But it is a virus and it does elicit an immunogenic response. That is to say, the body will respond with neutralizing antibodies; it will begin to fight off NDV. This may come to mean that multiple administrations of the virus may lose effectiveness. Currently, this response has not been noted but the potential does exist.

Trials are still being run, modifications are still being made. Obviously, more research must be conducted but the initial results show promise. Perhaps, one day, the avian killer NDV may become the savior of the cancer patient.

One can only hope.

Moscow pigeon


© 2013 Deety Petersen


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