As the flu season is hitting the country hard, taking your flu shots becomes more crucial than ever. But what if these flu shots can also be used to treat other diseases, like cancer? A recent study conducted by scientists at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey actually showed that this wild dream may very well be possible.

Currently, the newest and most promising anticancer therapy is cancer immunotherapy, where our immune system is recruited to target and attack cancerous cells. In order for immunotherapy to work, tumors have to be “hot”, i.e., they must contain immune cells that can be activated to attack the tumors. However, most cancer patients, especially patients with breast cancers, ovarian cancer, prostate cancer, pancreatic cancer, and glioblastomas, have “cold” tumors. These “cold” tumors often contain immunosuppressive signals in their microenvironment, which prevents immune cells from penetrating into the tumors, causing their tumors to not contain the necessary immune cells for immunotherapy to work effectively. The question is, how can we turn cold tumors into hot tumors?

Infections have always caused strong immune responses in our body. The flu’s many symptoms, such as coughing and vomiting, are prime examples of our immune system’s activity due to an infection. Therefore, Newman et al. wondered if injecting influenza into “cold” tumors would also increase the responses of the immune cells in the tumors, turning them from “cold” to “hot”. Indeed, using a mouse model, they found that injecting either the influenza and the flu vaccine into the tumors along with immunotherapy treatment was able to decrease the tumor size significantly and also double the lifespan of the mice. This shows that even using inactivated viral cells, as used in vaccines, we can prompt the same level of immune response as with the unaltered virus. 

This study showed that the commercially available flu vaccine could potentially be repurposed as a booster for cancer immunotherapy, which is very exciting for the advances of cancer therapy. Previous studies have focused on using live pathogens and viruses for activating “cold” tumors, but these therapies are often not available for patients with suppressed immune system. With the flu vaccine, these at-risk patients are now eligible to benefit from this new therapeutic strategy. Additionally, cancer patients may benefit from both the immunotherapy effects and protection from influenza infection. There is a lot of promise for this new role of the flu vaccine, but for now, let us diligently take our annual flu shots to fend off the flu season.

Managing Correspondent: Wei Li

Original Article: Intratumoral injection of the seasonal flu shot converts immunologically cold tumors to hot and serves as an immunotherapy for cancer. PNAS.

News Article: Flu vaccines may shrink tumors and boost cancer treatment. Medical News Today.

Can the flu shot help fight cancer? Science Daily.

Image Credit: Image by Angelo Esslinger from Pixabay

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