History of oncolytic viruses: genesis to genetic engineering

Mol Ther. 2007 Apr;15(4):651-9. doi: 10.1038/sj.mt.6300108. Epub 2007 Feb 13.


Since the turn of the nineteenth century, when their existence was first recognized, viruses have attracted considerable interest as possible agents of tumor destruction. Early case reports emphasized regression of cancers during naturally acquired virus infections, providing the basis for clinical trials where body fluids containing human or animal viruses were used to transmit infections to cancer patients. Most often the viruses were arrested by the host immune system and failed to impact tumor growth, but sometimes, in immunosuppressed patients, infection persisted and tumors regressed, although morbidity as a result of the infection of normal tissues was unacceptable. With the advent of rodent models and new methods for virus propagation, there were numerous attempts through the 1950s and 1960s to force the evolution of viruses with greater tumor specificity, but success was limited and many researchers abandoned the field. Technology employing reverse genetics later brought about a renewal of interest in virotherapy that allowed the generation of more potent, tumor-specific oncolytics. Here, examination of early oncolytic virotherapy before genetic engineering serves to highlight tremendous advances, yet also hints at ways to penetrate host immune defenses, a significant remaining challenge in modern virotherapy research.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Genetic Engineering* / history
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / therapy
  • Oncolytic Virotherapy* / history
  • Oncolytic Viruses / genetics*
  • Virology / history