The modified adenovirus homed in on malignant glioma cells in mice and induced enough self-cannibalization among the cancer cells -- a process called autophagy -- to reduce tumor size and extend survival, says senior author Seiji Kondo, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Neurosurgery at M. D. Anderson.
''This virus uses telomerase, an enzyme found in 80 percent of brain tumors, as a target,'' Kondo says. ''Once the virus enters the cell, it needs telomerase to replicate. Normal brain tissue does not have telomerase, so this virus replicates only in cancer cells.''
Other cancers are telomerase-positive, and the researchers showed in lab experiments that the virus kills human prostate and human cervical cancer cells while sparing normal tissue.
In addition to demonstrating the therapeutic potential of the virus, called hTERT-Ad, Kondo says the international research team also clarified the mechanism by which such conditionally replicating adenoviruses (CRAs) infect and kill cancer cells.
Autophagy is a protective process that cells employ to consume part of themselves when nutrients are scarce or to destroy some of their organelles to recycle their components. A double membrane forms around the material to be consumed, then everything inside is digested.
Kondo and colleagues showed that hTERT-Ad (short for human telomerase reverse transcriptase promoter regulated adenovirus) infected the glioma cells and induced autophagy by inactivating a molecular pathway -- the mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) pathway -- that is known to prevent cellular self-cannibalization.