Injecting tumors with a flu shot ignites cancer-killing immune response in mice

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Nearly 5,000 years ago, Egyptian physician Imhotep observed a grotesque but revealing detail about tumors: some grew so large that they burst open—and eventually disappeared. Seeing this happen, ancient texts suggest, he developed a radical cancer treatment: pierce patients’ tumors and then wait to see if they got smaller, cancer researcher Andrew Zloza of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago tells The Scientist. Sometimes they did.

Now, as immunotherapy captures cancer researchers’ attention, Zloza and others have begun to recognize that Imhotep and Coley might have been onto a major breakthrough in immunotherapy: they were using infections to kick-start cancer patients’ own immune systems to target and kill their tumors. Zloza and his colleagues recently added to the evidence for this approach with a study of tumor-bearing mice treated with the seasonal flu vaccine: injecting the vaccine, which consists of inactivated flu viruses, directly into mice’s skin tumors dramatically slowed the growth of tumors and in some cases reduced their size, the researchers reported

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The researchers suspect that the injection of flu-associated proteins into the mouse skin tumors signaled to the mice’s innate immune system that foreign material had entered the body. The resulting immune response, the scientists hypothesized, converts cold tumors to hot ones.

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