Though viruses are generally feared, scientists have begun finding ways to use them in the fight against cancer.

Professor Inder Verma, a leading authority in the race to cure and prevent cancer, spoke to students and members of the community last night in Corwin Pavilion about his latest research. His lecture, titled “Cancer: A Malady of Genes,” explained in-depth the use of genetically modified viruses, or “vectors,” to insert new genes into cells, where they produce a protein whose absence causes disease.

Co-sponsored by the Cancer Center of Santa Barbara, the speech was part of the UCSB Frontiers in Cancer Research lecture series, which brings prominent scientists like Verma into the community to discuss their groundbreaking advances in the treatment and prevention of cancer.

Verma said cancer results from a lack of control over cell replication, which leads to overproduction. Although there is no cure for cancer, he said there have been significant advances in suppression of the disease.

“Cancer is in retreat,” Verma said. “And it is because of the understanding gained in suppressing the growth of cancerous cells.”

While surgery and chemotherapy can be used to treat the disease, these processes can leave a few cells behind to eventually reemerge. However, Verma said, a new type of treatment called immunotherapy could solve this problem: Cells are injected with a virus and then reintroduced into a patient’s body with the purpose of improving the immune system’s cancer fighting response. The treatment also does not compromise the patient’s quality of life, he said, like chemotherapy or radiation treatment does.

“The most common and effective way to introduce a gene into a part of the body, like the liver for example where there are billions of cells, is through a virus,” Verma said.

Verma also discussed the possibility of combining immunotherapy and surgery simultaneously to treat a patient.

Fourth-year biology major Naveed Natanzi said the lecture was insightful.

“The mechanism by which cancer takes over the body seems so simple yet we still have no cure,” Natanzi said. “Professor Verma’s lecture was extremely insightful in helping me to better understand this enigma.”

Professor Verma, who is currently conducting his research at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, received a master’s degree from India’s Lucknow University and a Ph.D. from Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science.