The value of the measles vaccine has been amply demonstrated by the resurgence of measles as a threat as clutches of parents are avoiding or delaying vaccination for their children, but another, unknown, benefit has recently come to light. The measles vaccine—specifically, a super-huge dose of measles vaccine—cured a 50-year-old Minnesota woman named Stacy Erholtz of the bone marrow cancer multiple myeloma that she had been battling for years.
Although this is the first time the treatment has been successfully used in a human, it isn’t the first time it was proposed. As long ago as the 1970s it was observed that African children who had developed certain types of cancer went into remission when they contracted measles. Doctors at the Mayo Clinic, where Erholtz would be treated, began experiments involving the use of measles virus to fight a lethal brain cancer called glioblastoma multiforme. Other studies have looked at other ways of using viruses to fight cancer, notably a study in 2011 using a defanged form of human immunodeficiency virus to fight leukemia. The Mayo researchers used vaccines because the measles vaccine uses a modified form of the measles virus that doesn’t cause illness.
In Erholtz’s case, doctors injected a massive amount of the dormant virus—the equivalent of millions of doses of vaccine—into a tumor in her head. Six months later, she was in complete remission, a level of success almost never seen in the form of cancer she had, particularly at the stage her cancer had reached. Myeloma is a cancer of the bone marrow that can occur at any site in the skeleton. Multiple myeloma is, as the name suggests, when this happens at more than one site. Though the disease is relatively rare, cures are rarer, and about 2 million Americans will get it each year.
Other patients showed improvement after receiving the treatment, including the one other study subject who received so large a dose, but so far only Erholtz has experienced complete remission. In fact, researchers say she is the first patient whose cancer had spread who experienced complete remission at all sites as a result of any kind of virus therapy. Previously, while treating cancer with modified viruses proved successful when there was only one tumor at a single location, Erholtz was the first patient to receive the treatment after the cancer had popped of in several places and have it be a complete success.