Using modeling to target cancer

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By Megan Kelly, Coordinated Science Lab
October 22, 2009

  • ECE Assistant Professor Olgica Milenkovic is working to understand viral cancer treatment.
  • Milenkovic's objective is to modify viruses to invade and eradicate cancer cells.
  • The colleaugues are working to secure more funding to continue this research.

Olgica  Milenkovic
Olgica Milenkovic

ECE Assistant Professor Olgica Milenkovic believes a cure for cancer could be a reality, thanks to cross-disciplinary research she is conducting with Illinois colleagues in microbiology and pathobiology.

The researchers are working to genetically modify poxviruses and inject them into tumors. Their objective is to program the viruses to invade and eradicate cancer cells.

“Our ultimate goal is to get a better understanding if viral cancer treatment has a real promise for developing a future cure (for cancer),” said Milenkovic, who is a researcher in the Coordinated Science Lab.

Their approach is unique because it incorporates both science and math into the cancer equation.

University of Illinois microbiologist Joanna Shisler and pathobiologist Amy MacNeill are working to build genetically modified poxviruses that can directly kill cancer cells but also stimulate the immune system to destroy the viral cells. The latter is essential because cancer cells share the genetic makeup of regular tissue, so the immune system does not notice them. However, a virus attack instantly alerts the immune system, which sends killer-T cells to surround and destroy the viral cell.

“[My colleagues] tested this during in vitro experiments, where they managed to shrink tumors and destroy them at an 80 percent success rate,” Milenkovic said.

However, in-body experiments done on animals have not shown success because it is not clear how the three populations-- the immune system, modified viruses and cancer cells-- interact within the body. This is where Milenkovic’s work comes in. She developed a population dynamic study that investigates the three populations and demonstrates how they interact, focusing on the strength of each and how they fight each other.

“When you modify a virus, how dangerous it will be on someone’s body is not clear. It may lose completely to the cancer, or may kill not only the cancer but several healthy cells as well, creating a new problem,” Milenkovic said. “Our Sci-Fi fantasy is to modify it so it will win without hurting healthy cells. However, we don’t have the data to precisely figure that out at this time.”

Milenkovic said that, with the help of Assistant Professor of Mathematics Zoi Rapti, she developed a simple two-state hidden Markov model for cancer treatments using advanced differential equations, but the parameters needed to supply the model are the results of many biological experiments.

“I have received experimental data from Joanna and Amy, but not nearly enough to create an accurate model using their parameters,” Milenkovic explained. “We need funding. I have all the math and part of the parameters, but to put everything together requires lots of experiments.”

Currently, the colleagues are working to pursue funding. Milenkovic estimates the project will require about $2 million a year.

Without a model, the biologists are experimentally injecting viruses and noting the results. Milenkovic hopes the funding will be approved, allowing more experiments to help perfect the parameters for her model.

“Once an accurate model is developed, it will tell you at what point a virus is overtaken by the cancer, meaning the cancer is winning. This would indicate when a reinjection of the virus should be made,” she said. “That way, we’ll be able to monitor the fight between the cancer and virus and ensure the virus wins without hurting the body.”

Editor's note: media inquiries should be directed to Brad Petersen, Director of Communications, at bradp@illinois.edu or (217) 244-6376.

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