By Wendy Sarubbi | July 24, 2017 5:27 pm

Four years ago, Candace Fox watched her grandfather die of aggressive lung cancer and at that moment, she committed herself to finding a cure.

Today the 24 year-old Ph.D. student at the Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences, is doing just that.  She is genetically altering a parainfluenza virus that usually causes respiratory infections to selectively attack cancer cells. In the lab, the virus kills many cancer cells and makes those that survive more vulnerable to chemotherapy drugs.

Her research recently received an $8,000 grant from Circle of Hope for Cancer Research, a nonprofit group based in Central Florida. Its founders, Joan Tashbar and Rosa Holloway are two lung cancer survivors who donate 100 percent of the funds they raise through 5K runs and golf tournaments to medical students doing cancer research.

This is the second year the nonprofit has provided such grants. Fox’s research is one of two projects Circle of Hope supported this year; the other recipient is a student researcher at the University of Florida.

“Joan and I battled Stage 3 lung cancer and after we became cancer-free we tried to find a way to give back and started raising money for cancer research,” Holloway said.

She said Fox’s was one of the most promising applications for research funding they had received this year.

“We have to look at all avenues to find a cure for cancer and hers was among the top two the close to 20 applications we received,” Hollaway said. “It is a unique project that, if successful, could make a big impact for cancer treatment.”

Fox said the virus provides an advantage over traditional cancer therapies because the modified virus selectively infects cancer cells without harming healthy cells.

“When you’re administering chemotherapy alone, there’s no real way to provide specificity,” she explained. “It affects healthy cells as well and the majority of your organs, which is why there are so many side effects. Ideally, normal cells can cope from the injury from chemotherapy therapy drugs, but that’s not always the case.”

“Additionally, once the virus is administered, it activates the immune system, so immune cells come to the rescue and also attack the cancer cells,” Fox added.

“This combination therapy will therefore allow us to use a lower dose of chemotherapy drugs, reducing the side effects for the patient.”

“Using viruses to selectively kill tumor cells is one of the hottest areas of cancer therapies being investigated,” said Dr. Griff Parks, director of the Burnett School and research professor. “This Circle of Hope grant will make an impact on further testing for Candace’s new combination therapy.”

Fox has so far tested the combination therapy on lung, breast, prostate and ovarian cancer cells isolated from patients’ tumors.  Breast, prostate and ovarian cancer cells infected with the modified virus, then chemotherapy, showed an improvement in cell death. Lung cancer cells were completely destroyed. The next step will be using animal models to test the effectiveness of the treatment, and then human clinical trials.

“Cancer is so prevalent and aggressive and some tumors have the ability to become resistant to chemotherapy drugs,” Fox said. “So we do need to find better, more potent treatments.”

“This finding is very significant and we’re looking forward to testing this combination therapy on animal models, which is what this grant will allow us to do.”

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