Could the common cold cure mesothelioma?

Immunotherapy treatment is the hottest topic in cancer research right now and may hold the key to the future of cancer treatment. Different types of immunotherapy have been tested on mesothelioma cells since the 1970s but only recent developments have caused major excitement with promising results.

Originally born out of studying bladder cancers, new immunotherapy treatments tested on bladder cancer patients have recently revealed startlingly high success rates, which could pave the way for a long-term cure for mesothelioma patients.


Immunotherapy is a treatment aimed at stopping cancer cells from hiding from the immune system. In other words, the drugs ‘reveal’ the cancer to the body’s immune system and the body then attacks the cancer cells.

It is considered better than chemotherapy, as immunotherapy only targets cancer cells (chemotherapy targets healthy cells as well) and thus there are less side effects on patients. In addition, unlike chemotherapy, immunotherapy does not attack the (cancer) cells, the body does. However, due to the way immunotherapy works, there is a theory that this treatment only affects people with the ‘right’ genetic code, but medical trials have yet to confirm this conclusively.

Currently, immunotherapy has not been able to cure the cancer but instead (and where treatment is successful) the cancerous tumour is shrunk. As such, there remains a risk of the cancer returning, and often patients who proceed to immunotherapy, often sadly succumb to the disease before the treatment is completed.

The main immunotherapy drug of choice is currently Keytruda, also known as Pembrolizumab. First trialled on bladder cancer victims, Keytruda had an astonishing success rate in clinical trials, which prompted it to be trialled for other cancers. Sadly, the results from using such treatment in mesothelioma patients was not convincing enough for the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, who provide guidance, advice and information to health professions, to recommend the treatment on the NHS. For now, the effectiveness remains uncertain, not to mention the significant costs involved makes it unlikely to be licenced.


The difficulty in finding improved medical treatments in mesothelioma claims is partly due to compensation claims where, understandably, claimants are seeking the cost of treatment privately. There has also been a lack of investment in clinical testing for this type of cancer. This means that clinical trials are rare, with limited patients willing to undergo the risk of being given a placebo, such as an aspirin, where the alternative is to be given the currently best known drug, paid for by a defendant.

Where mesothelioma does recur, there are emerging immunotherapy drugs, such as Opdivo that are showing promising results, although thus far, they prolong a person’s life rather than cure the cancer. As such, they are generally considered more effective than chemotherapy, as a second-line treatment. 

More recently, in December 2018, an exciting new American study has published its preliminary results, which suggest that a strain of the common cold can effectively target and destroy bladder cancer cells. Currently at phase one of the human trials, but so far, 100% of those given the strain of common cold were cured of their bladder cancer. The trial recruited fifteen patients with drugs administered directly into the bladder via a catheter. The effect is that the cold virus triggers tumour cell death and at the same times seems to stimulate the body's natural immune system to better target and attack the bladder cancer cells. A further benefit was that no significant side effects were observed in any patient.

It is already known that some viruses can target and kill specific cancers, for example, the zika virus, is known to attack brain cancer and the herpes virus attacks skin cancer.

If the ‘common cold study’ is verified by larger trials this could have exciting results for bladder cancer victims and perhaps also for mesothelioma victims.


Given the potential link of treatments between bladder cancer and mesothelioma, the results of the study are worth watching and certainly provides some much needed hope. In addition, the cost of treatment could be significantly reduced if a variant of the common cold could cure mesothelioma, which could become a widely available and affordable form of treatment to all.

Read other items in Occupational Disease Brief - September 2019

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