The anti-cancer virus engineered by Hebrew University researchers comes from the same family as the HIV virus.A new technique for tricking cancer cells into “committing suicide” and thus preventing their spread has been developed by researchers at the Alexander Silberman Institute of Life Sciences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Hebrew University doctoral candidate Alexei Shir and his adviser, biochemistry professor Alexander Levitzki, were initially intrigued by the inability of cancer cells to kill themselves, a syndrome known to scientists as apoptosis.

The researchers developed an unusual technique to induce cancer cells to self-destruct instead of replicate, involving the engineering of a virus from the same family as the HIV virus that induces cancer cells to behave like normal cells that are under attack by a pathogen.

In healthy cells attacked by a virus, a protein known as PKR is activated as the result of RNA replication within the affected cell. This protein causes the cell to destroy itself, thus preventing the spread of the virus. Normally, PKR hibernates, taking no action unless an invading virus provokes the cell.

But the Hebrew University scientists devised a strategy to “trick” cancer cells into “waking up” their PKR without activating it in normal cells. Shir and Levitzki developed a technique for engineering a unique virus that can be “smuggled” into the cancer cells. This virus, in turn, triggers the PKR activation in the cancerous cells and induces them to die, much as ordinary cells would when attacked by a virus.

The virus is directed specifically against an especially virulent brain tumor cancer and is not harmful to normal cells. The researchers said this represents a significant improvement over chemotherapy treatments, which kill cancer cells but also have harmful effects on normal cells. In laboratory tests, the induced virus technique resulted in significant halting of the spread of the brain tumor.

Levitzki stressed that it would still take much time before their work can be implemented to treat cancer patients, since much laboratory and clinical work remains to be done. In the meantime, the team, which includes other graduate students in Levitzki’s department, is adapting its anti-cancer strategy for use against lymphoma and leukemia, in addition to the brain cancer cells they have used it on so far.

Shir was awarded one of Hebrew University’s Kaye Innovation Awards earlier this summer for his work.

A startup company, Algen Biopharmaceuticals, has been established by Yissum, the Hebrew University’s research and development arm, together with Levitzki and investors, to further develop this technology.