A nurse at Merawi health center in northern Ethiopia prepares a measles vaccine for delivery. (Photo: Pete Lewis/Department for International Development)

A nurse in northern Ethiopia prepares a measles vaccine. (Photo: Pete Lewis/Department for International Development)

The discovery of  how measles spreads could lead to promising new approaches in treating cancer, according to a new study published in Nature.

Measles – the leading cause of death among young children, according to the World Health Organization –  is commonly spread through coughing or sneezing.

Scientists say this method of transmission explains why the virus spreads so quickly and how it’s remained resistant to worldwide vaccination programs designed to  eradicate it.

In order to start and spread an infection throughout an organism, viruses generally use cell receptors, which are molecules that receive signals from other cells.  This is no different for the measles virus, which enters and spreads throughout the body by infecting the immune cells in the lungs.

An international team of researchers recently discovered  the measles virus leaves its host through a receptor called nectin-4, which is located in the trachea.  Scientists say the trachea is a part of the human body that is ideally suited to airborne infection.

Scientists say nectin-4 is  a biomarker for certain types of cancer such as breast, ovarian and lung cancers.

Since measles actively targets nectin-4, scientists are working on ways to use a modified version of the measles virus to attack cancer cells.

Those clinical trials are now under way.

The scientists are hopeful measles-based therapy will prove more successful in treating some cancer patients, while being less toxic than chemotherapy or radiation.