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If this anti-cancer virus is so brilliant why is there no funding for it?


Pharmaceutical companies are interested in research only when it looks likely it will produce a profit. This research is some years away from that at this stage. Not only that, the Swedish research team placed much of their research in to the public domain, in order to help others with their research.

This act of altruism has meant that the Swedish team is unable to patent their research. This, in turn, means that pharmaceutical companies cannot guarantee that they alone will own the research at this stage and therefore profit from it.

Only when it has been trialled and developed further, can a new set of patents be applied – giving a drugs company sole ownership of the product, and a guaranteed profit.

The Swedish team has received grants from Swedish government funding and the Swedish Cancer Society (equivalent to Cancer Research UK). The grants cover the research to develop viruses for therapy but they are not big enough to run clinical trials with an advanced medicinal product where special rules apply (viruses falls under this category in Europe).


Independent expert Prof Alan Melcher talks about the science behind #iCancer

Prof Alan Melcher is a Cancer Research UK Senior Clinical Research Fellow and Professor of Clinical Oncology and Biotherapy in the Leeds Institute of Molecular Medicine.  Having qualified from Oxford University, he trained in clinical oncology in Cardiff, London and Leeds.

Having completed a PhD at the Hammersmith Hospital in London, he continued post-doctoral research at the Mayo Clinic, Minnesota, USA before returning to the UK in 2000.

He currently combines a clinical practice treating melanoma with chemotherapy, radiotherapy and biotherapies, with a laboratory-based pre-clinical and clinical research programme focused on novel immune effector cells and oncolytic viruses for the treatment of cancer.




The published scientific papers

Prof Justyna Leja and Prof Magnus Essand

By Prof Justyna Leja

My research focuses on development of new cancer therapies, where viruses are used as a novel anti-cancer drugs.

I did my four-year PhD studies under supervision of Prof. Magnus Essand and my work resulted in the development of what is known as an adenovirus that can specifically kill neuroendocrine cancer cells.

We have published four articles where we describe various ways of controlling and modifying the virus to kill cancer cells, leaving normal cells unharmed. Paper I describes the modification of viral DNA to make it multiply to kill only neuroendocrine cancer cells.

In paper II we describe how we protect normal, non-cancerous, cells from the virus. In papers III and IV we demonstrate how we modified the virus’ surface to improve its ability to infect and spread in tumours.

Our virus has a good efficacy in killing neuroendocrine tumours (NET) in mice. Our hopes are that this treatment will have significant effects for NET patients as well. The only way to find out if our virus can help cancer patients is to perform a clinical trial and to do so we need support from public.


A novel chromogranin-A promoter-driven oncolytic adenovirus for midgut carcinoid therapy.

Leja J, Dzojic H, Gustafson E, Oberg K, Giandomenico V, Essand M.

Clin Cancer Res. 2007 Apr 15;13(8):2455-62.


Double-detargeted oncolytic adenovirus shows replication arrest in liver cells and retains neuroendocrine cell killing ability.

Leja J, Nilsson B, Yu D, Gustafson E, Akerström G, Oberg K, Giandomenico V, Essand M.


Adenovirus with hexon Tat-protein transduction domain modification exhibits increased therapeutic effect in experimental neuroblastoma and neuroendocrine tumors.

Yu D, Jin C, Leja J, Majdalani N, Nilsson B, Eriksson F, Essand M.

J Virol. 2011 Dec;85(24):13114-23. Epub 2011 Sep 28.


Oncolytic adenovirus modified with somatostatin motifs for selective infection of neuroendocrine tumor cells.

Leja J, Yu D, Nilsson B, Gedda L, Zieba A, Hakkarainen T, Åkerström G, Öberg K, Giandomenico V, Essand M.

Gene Ther. 2011 Nov;18(11):1052-62. doi: 10.1038/gt.2011.54. Epub 2011 Apr 14.

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The cancer killer they won’t pay for – Telegraph

Steve Jobs, the former CEO of Apple who was diagnosed in 2003 with the same cancer as the iCancer virus
Steve Jobs, the former CEO of Apple who was diagnosed in 2003 with the same cancer as the iCancer virus

Published in the Telegraph
By Alexander Masters

Five years ago, Dido Davies, the wizard who advises me on all my writing and a brilliant editor, discovered she had a growth the size of a grapefruit on her pancreas. It was a neuroendocrine tumour, or Net: the cancer that killed Steve Jobs. NHS surgeons immediately performed an eight-hour operation to remove it. Two years later, the cancer was back and she began chemotherapy.

Meanwhile, I started searching the internet. Nets are relatively rare cancers, have few successful treatments, and come low on the list of research priorities. They are also comparatively slow-growing, which is why Jobs, the former CEO of Apple who was diagnosed in 2003, was able to invent the iPhone and the iPad. If he’d had ordinary pancreatic cancer, he’d have been dead before the MacBook.

To my astonishment, I tracked down two gene therapists in Sweden who had engineered a virus specifically to destroy this type of cancer. Photographs they’d published in leading medical journals showed Nets in mice melting away. Yet when I rang the lab, they told me they were going to throw the treatment away without testing it on humans.

Because Prof Magnus Essand and Dr Justyna Leja of Uppsala University had published the results of their work, they could not secure a patent for this “cancer-eating” virus. Without a patent, no business would fund the human trial, because there was no profit to be made. Two million pounds was all they needed – less than Apple earns in seven minutes.

Two month ago, I wrote in this paper expressing my despair and frustration. Only a proper human clinical trial can tell if this new treatment will eat up human tumours, too. If the virus works, it could benefit not just the tens of thousands of people with Nets worldwide, but other cancer patients as well, because it could be adapted to attack many types of tumour.

Two weeks after my article appeared, The Daily Telegraph ran a feature by Dominic Nutt. Dominic has worked for aid agencies in war zones and refugee camps around the world. He’s been shot at, bombed and kidnapped. Yet when his doctor told him in January that he had a neuroendocrine cancer and that he might not see his younger daughter’s first day at school, he broke down. After reading my article, he decided to go public about his illness in the hope of inspiring someone to come forward with that £2 million.

The next day Dominic and I began a campaign. If venture capitalists wouldn’t invest in this potential new therapy because of the lack of obvious cash returns, then we would take the cause to the people and raise the money by crowd-funding. Dominic contacted a social media expert, Liz Scarff, while I got hold of the Net Patient Foundation, and brought in a publicist friend. We held our first meeting on the balcony of a Wetherspoon’s pub in Victoria train station.

We’ve called it the iCancer campaign. It launches this Friday, October 5 – exactly one year after the death of Steve Jobs. October 5 is also my friend Dido’s birthday. Thank heavens, she is doing well.

‘Would I take an untested cancer treatment myself? Hell, yes!’

Dom Nutt diagnosed with a NET - the cancer the iCancer virus will target
Dom Nutt diagnosed with a NET – the cancer the iCancer virus will target

Published in the Telegraph

By Dominic Nutt

In January, I learnt I had the same cancer that killed Steve Jobs: a tumour that cannot be cured by drugs, by chemotherapy or radiotherapy. If it had spread I had only a 30 per cent chance of surviving to see my younger daughter Alethea’s first day at school.

Neuroendocrine tumours (NETs – also known as carcinoid tumours) are rare, so treatment for them has not advanced as it has done for common cancers such as breast and bowel cancer. My consultant could only advocate surgery, and hope he’d caught it early enough.

What I didn’t know then was that there is a potential treatment for this type of cancer, languishing in a deep freeze in Sweden: a so-called “cancer-eating virus”. Yet it seems the treatment may never see the light of day.Alexander Masters reported in the Telegraph magazine two weeks ago, in an article that has received international attention, that researchers have been unable to raise the paltry £2 million needed to take the treatment to clinical trial.

The thought that out there is something that could be investigated for a couple of million is difficult to come to terms with. I emailed Masters, to thank him for uncovering this story and – who knows – perhaps inspiring someone to come forward and fund the research. But I want to do more.

In my day-to-day job as a communications specialist, I tell other people’s stories, not my own. So it feels uncomfortable to write about myself and my family on such a personal and emotional level. But so little is known about NETs, so little invested in research, that I’ve decided to go public about my experience, in the hope of raising awareness, and maybe continuing what Alexander Masters started.

Before that New Year encounter at St George’s in south-west London, I was a relatively fit 44-year-old, whose Type 1 diabetes (which I developed as a teenager), had never held back my career flying in and out of war zones for international aid agencies.

Then, the week before Christmas, I developed a sharp pain in my lower stomach. My wife, Glenda, (who, armed with Google and a fertile imagination, is always diagnosing rare ailments) nagged me to see our GP. I went, just to keep the peace – and was rushed into hospital to have my appendix out.

The next day my surgeon told me that, surprisingly, there seemed to be nothing wrong with the excised appendix and I was discharged, still drunk from the anaesthetic and in pain, but armed with a sick note that would get me off washing-up duty over Christmas. There was nothing to suggest that my follow-up appointment in January was anything other than routine and so I went along to the hospital on my own. But I was harbouring a nagging doubt. And I wasn’t wrong. My consultant, Robert Hagger, told me they had found a 12mm tumour on my appendix.

“So, I have to tell my wife I have cancer?” I asked.

He said that technically it wasn’t called a cancer, but a neuroendocrine tumour. I can see his face now. Professional, calm, caring and concerned. Even then, drowning in fear and confusion, I liked and trusted Mr Hagger.

“But it is a tumour?” I asked. “And it spreads? And it might kill me? Forgive me, but I’m going to call it cancer. So what’s the treatment?”

That was when Mr Hagger had to explain there was very little that could be done.

NET is the umbrella term for a group of unusual tumours that develop from the neuroendocrine cells that are responsible for the production of various hormones such as adrenalin, insulin and serotonin. NETs can be benign or malignant. They may also release hormones but in an uncontrolled way.

Mr Hagger explained that once a NET has spread, it is called cancer. (It continues to be a technical nicety that passes me by. The subtleties of the terminology won’t save my life.) NETs are so rare that even a big teaching hospital such as St George’s only see a few cases annually. According to Macmillan Cancer Support just 1,200 people are diagnosed with NETs each year in the UK, although the incidence is increasing.

NETs can develop all around the body – in the lungs, the pancreas, and the bowel, for example, and this causes confusion. An NET in the bowel isn’t bowel cancer. In the case of Steve Jobs, it was widely reported he had a form of pancreatic cancer, for which the prognosis is often poor. But he actually had a NET in his pancreas. The prognosis for this is much better – if you have surgery early. However, it has been reported Jobs’s surgery was delayed and, if true, this may have contributed to his death at 56. This remains a matter of conjecture because he never spoke about his illness in detail.

My surgeon recommended a right-hemicolectomy, an operation to remove a section of my colon where the nearest set of lymph nodes to the original tumour was situated. Lymph nodes, located all over the body, are an important part of our immune system. They also act as jumping-off points for cancer cells to spread from a primary site.

Mr Hagger explained it like this: “I look at lymph nodes as being ‘filters of disease’. If you have a sore throat, the lymph nodes in your neck swell in response to the infection as the microbes are filtered through them.Lymph nodes “straining” disease and infections out from a particular part of a body may be a site where cancer cells can lodge.” So, lymph nodes ”catch’’ the cancers – and harbour them while they grow and spread.

He said he hoped that he’d find no disease in my lymph nodes; there were rarely any side effects from the operation, that I wouldn’t need a colostomy and I’d be out of hospital in six days. In the meantime, I’d have regular CAT scans, urine and blood tests. Because NETs can produce hormones in the blood, a rise in the levels of certain hormonal by-products, as they break down, can also be an indication of spread.

It was then Mr Hagger spelt out the statistics. If there was no spread to the lymph nodes I had a 90 per cent chance of surviving five years. If it has spread to the lymph nodes then that falls to 80 per cent. And if it has spread further, I had a 30 per cent chance.

Somehow I found myself outside the Macmillan Cancer counselling office in St George’s. I remember thinking: I feel sorry for the people who have to go in there – they have cancer. Then I remembered: so did I.

A kindly woman with a gentle voice asked me if I was OK. I wanted to fall at her feet and howl in pain. But I didn’t want to make a scene. “Yes, thanks, I’m just looking for the loo,” I muttered.

I’ve worked in refugee camps across the world. My job is to convey to others what is happening to people in the extremes of despair. At the time I was working for the charity World Vision, where I dealt with stories about starving and abused children. Yet during that five-minute walk from St George’s to my home in Tooting I had no idea what I was going to say to my wife.

I was angry. My father, an alcoholic, had never been around much when I was a child. I vowed that if I had children, I would never leave them. Having a family was a very considered decision. I wanted to be a good father, a strong presence who was always there for them. And now, I was faced with the real possibility that I could be torn away from them – with no control, no choice. This was not how I’d planned it.

Faith, three, and Alethea, who had just turned one, were belting around the kitchen, immersed in one of their interminable play races as I stood by the fridge and tried to put into words what had just happened. I couldn’t.

Glenda had to ask me several times before it became clear what I was trying to say. “So is it cancer?” she asked repeatedly. Then we put the girls to bed, cried, drank wine and ate all the chocolate and Haribos we could find. Life-changing moments can be mundane like that.

In those first days I couldn’t look my at daughters as they laughed and played, oblivious. I was consumed with the fear that I might soon desert them. I felt I was about to betray them.

Since then, my world has been turned upside-down: it is a world of blood tests, urine tests, CAT scans and a painful operation in February, in which 17 lymph nodes were removed. Further tests showed that the cancer had spread to one of them. Bad news. But I had done my own research and discovered, thanks to Lisa, a friend who works, coincidentally, as an oncology nurse specialising in NETs at another London hospital, that there is a specific and highly sensitive test for NETs. It is called an octreotide scan, a three-day extravaganza in which they inject you with a radioactive chemical that is absorbed by the NET. It complements the standard CAT scan because it can highlight some – not all – NETs when they’re still too small to be picked up by other tests, so – crucially – they can be removed before they take hold.

The team at St George’s considered I’d had sufficient radiological scanning but, to their credit, they immediately agreed to let me have this second scan when I asked for it. It came up clear.

I had another scan this week. This will be my life for the next five years: every time a scan is clear my chances look a little better, but until the five years pass, I can’t be sure. There is no good news in this business. I have a scan and the best I can expect is a “no cancer yet” result. The sword of Damocles still hangs over me. Cancer patients are never clear – they just aren’t dead yet.

Seeing Mr Hagger is always a bittersweet experience. He’s a great guy and I feel privileged to be treated by him. Each time he tells me I’m clear, I feel happy. Yet, each time I walk in, I know I may hear I’m about to die.

When I read about the Swedish virus I tried to keep calm. It’s hope that can be hardest to bear. And yet, maybe, just maybe, there is a treatment, even a cure, waiting for me – for all of us. Maybe the Swedish magicians will make this all go away for me, for Glenda and my girls.

Despite it all, here’s the thing: I feel lucky. Lucky to have met Mr Hagger. Lucky to be married to Glenda, for the love with which she surrounds me. But I also feel lucky because of the sheer randomness of events. I randomly had a stomach ache – Mr Hagger told me that the tumour would not have caused my stomach pain – and my wife persuaded me to see the doctor. I randomly had my appendix out and they found a tumour. I randomly have a friend who specialises in NETs and who told me about this specialist scan – and I managed to get that scan.

At the moment I feel bullet-proof. You may say I’m in denial, and I guess I am. One day, though, my luck may run out. If you asked me then whether at the moment I was told my tumour had spread, would I opt to take the untested virus myself? Would I risk all for the chance to see my daughters go to school, and to hold my wife’s hand as we celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary – instead of forcing them to watch me die, tubed up and in pain? Hell, yes!


Author appeals to Apple to fund cancer hope that could have saved Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs died of a rare form of cancer called a neuroendocrine tumour
Steve Jobs died of a rare form of cancer called a neuroendocrine tumour

Published in the Telegraph

By , Medical Correspondent

Alexander Masters, author of the book Stuart: A Life Backwards, which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Book Awards, has been desperately searching for a cure to neuroendocrine (’NET’) tumours. His editor Dido Davies is suffering from the disease.

Although it was widely reported that the Apple founder died of pancreatic cancer, what really killed him was NET cancer in the pancreas. Such cancers are relatively rare, and there have been few advances in treatment for years..

Masters came across Swedish researchers who have high hopes for a potential treatment, a virus that ’eats’ NET cancer cells.

However, they need about £2 million to fund clinical trials of the modified virus, which at the moment is languishing in a university freezer.

Masters said: “I’ve tried to interest Apple in this, but who do you contact?

“I would wholeheartedly appeal to them to help fund this research. After all, Apple rakes in £2 million every seven minutes.”

Masters has written about his search for a cure in today’s Telegraph Magazine.

Professor Magnus Essand of Uppsala University in Sweden claimed the cancer-eating virus was potentially “better than anything else ”.

“It kills human tumour cell lines that are resistant to every drug available,” he said.

“We urgently need to see if we can replicate these results in humans.”

Prof Essand is currently hindered by the lack of a patent, meaning there is currently no incentive for drugs firms to develop the virus as a medicine.

In addition, the Swedish government will not cover the full cost of clinical trials, leaving Prof Essand’s team reliant on private donations.

It is unclear whether Jobs was aware of the research before he died last October, aged 56. He eventually agreed to conventional treatment, but only after delaying surgery and chemo in favour of alternative medicine.

Professor Alan Melcher, a Cancer Research UK funded expert at using viruses to treat cancer at Leeds University, commented: “This new approach to treating neuroendocrine tumours is undoubtedly promising, but as yet unproven in the clinic.”

A virus that kills cancer: the cure that’s waiting in the cold – Telegraph

Published in the Telegraph
Written by Alexander Masters

On the snow-clotted plains of central Sweden where Wotan and Thor, the clamorous gods of magic and death, once held sway, a young, self-deprecating gene therapist has invented a virus that eliminates the type of cancer that killed Steve Jobs.

‘Not “eliminates”! Not “invented”, no!’ interrupts Professor Magnus Essand, panicked, when I Skype him to ask about this explosive achievement.

‘Our results are only in the lab so far, not in humans, and many treatments that work in the lab can turn out to be not so effective in humans. However, adenovirus serotype 5 is a common virus in which we have achieved transcriptional targeting by replacing an endogenous viral promoter sequence by…’

It sounds too kindly of the gods to be true: a virus that eats cancer.

‘I sometimes use the phrase “an assassin who kills all the bad guys”,’ Prof Essand agrees contentedly.

Cheap to produce, the virus is exquisitely precise, with only mild, flu-like side-effects in humans. Photographs in research reports show tumours in test mice melting away.

‘It is amazing,’ Prof Essand gleams in wonder. ‘It’s better than anything else. Tumour cell lines that are resistant to every other drug, it kills them in these animals.’

Yet as things stand, Ad5[CgA-E1A-miR122]PTD – to give it the full gush of its most up-to-date scientific name – is never going to be tested to see if it might also save humans. Since 2010 it has been kept in a bedsit-sized mini freezer in a busy lobby outside Prof Essand’s office, gathering frost. (‘Would you like to see?’ He raises his laptop computer and turns, so its camera picks out a table-top Electrolux next to the lab’s main corridor.)

Two hundred metres away is the Uppsala University Hospital, a European Centre of Excellence in Neuroendocrine Tumours. Patients fly in from all over the world to be seen here, especially from America, where treatment for certain types of cancer lags five years behind Europe. Yet even when these sufferers have nothing else to hope for, have only months left to live, wave platinum credit cards and are prepared to sign papers agreeing to try anything, to hell with the side-effects, the oncologists are not permitted – would find themselves behind bars if they tried – to race down the corridors and snatch the solution out of Prof Essand’s freezer.

I found out about Prof Magnus Essand by stalking him. Two and a half years ago the friend who edits all my work – the biographer and genius transformer of rotten sentences and misdirected ideas, Dido Davies – was diagnosed with neuroendocrine tumours, the exact type of cancer that Steve Jobs had. Every three weeks she would emerge from the hospital after eight hours of chemotherapy infusion, as pale as ice but nevertheless chortling and optimistic, whereas I (having spent the day battling Dido’s brutal edits to my work, among drip tubes) would stumble back home, crack open whisky and cigarettes, and slump by the computer. Although chemotherapy shrank the tumour, it did not cure it. There had to be something better.

It was on one of those evenings that I came across a blog about a quack in Mexico who had an idea about using sub-molecular particles – nanotechnology. Quacks provide a very useful service to medical tyros such as myself, because they read all the best journals the day they appear and by the end of the week have turned the results into potions and tinctures. It’s like Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black reading theNational Enquirer to find out what aliens are up to, because that’s the only paper trashy enough to print the truth. Keep an eye on what the quacks are saying, and you have an idea of what might be promising at the Wild West frontier of medicine. This particular quack was in prison awaiting trial for the manslaughter (by quackery) of one of his patients, but his nanotechnology website led, via a chain of links, to a YouTube lecture about an astounding new therapy for neuroendocrine cancer based on pig microbes, which is currently being put through a variety of clinical trials in America.

I stopped the video and took a snapshot of the poster behind the lecturer’s podium listing useful research company addresses; on the website of one of these organisations was a reference to a scholarly article that, when I checked through the footnotes, led, via a doctoral thesis, to a Skype address – which I dialled.

‘Hey! Hey!’ Prof Magnus Essand answered.

To geneticists, the science makes perfect sense. It is a fact of human biology that healthy cells are programmed to die when they become infected by a virus, because this prevents the virus spreading to other parts of the body. But a cancerous cell is immortal; through its mutations it has somehow managed to turn off the bits of its genetic programme that enforce cell suicide. This means that, if a suitable virus infects a cancer cell, it could continue to replicate inside it uncontrollably, and causes the cell to ‘lyse’ – or, in non-technical language, tear apart. The progeny viruses then spread to cancer cells nearby and repeat the process. A virus becomes, in effect, a cancer of cancer. In Prof Essand’s laboratory studies his virus surges through the bloodstreams of test animals, rupturing cancerous cells with Viking rapacity.

The Uppsala virus isn’t unique. Since the 1880s, doctors have known that viral infections can cause dramatic reductions in tumours. In 1890 an Italian clinician discovered that prostitutes with cervical cancer went into remission when they were vaccinated against rabies, and for several years he wandered the Tuscan countryside injecting women with dog saliva. In another, 20th-century, case, a 14-year-old boy with lymphatic leukaemia caught chickenpox: within a few days his grotesquely enlarged liver and spleen had returned to ordinary size; his explosive white blood cell count had shrunk nearly 50-fold, back to normal.

But it wasn’t until the 1990s, and the boom in understanding of genetics, that scientists finally learnt how to harness and enhance this effect. Two decades later, the first results are starting to be discussed in cancer journals.

So why is Magnus – did he mind if I called him ‘Magnus’? – about to stop his work?

A reticent, gently doleful-looking man, he has a Swedish chirrup that makes him sound jolly whatever his actual mood. On the web, the first links to him proclaim the Essand Band, his rock group. ‘Money,’ he said. ‘Lack of.’

‘Lack of how much money? Give me a figure,’ I pressed. ‘What sort of price are we talking about to get this virus out of your freezer and give these people a chance of life?’

Magnus has light brown hair that, like his voice, refuses to cooperate. No matter how much he ruffles it, it looks politely combed. He wriggled his fingers through it now, raised his eyes and squinted in calculation, then looked back into his laptop camera. ‘About a million pounds?’

More people have full-blown neuroendocrine tumours (known as NETs or carcinoids) than stomach, pancreas, oesophagus or liver cancer. And the incidence is growing: there has been a five-fold increase in the number of people diagnosed in the last 30 years.

In medical school, students are taught ‘when you hear hoof beats, think horses not zebras’ – don’t diagnose a rare disease when there’s a more prob-able explanation. It leads to frequent misdiagnoses: until the death of Steve Jobs, NETs were considered the zebras of cancer, and dismissed as irritable bowel syndrome, flu or the patient getting in a tizz. But doctors are now realising that NETs are much more prevalent than previously thought. In a recent set of post-mortem investigations, scientists cut open more than 30,000 bodies, and ran their hands down the intestines of the dead as if they were squeezing out sausage skins. One in every 100 of them had the distinctive gritty bumps of NETs. That’s two people in every rush-hour tube carriage on your way home from work, or scaled up, 700,000 people in Britain, or roughly twice the population of the city of Manchester. The majority of these tumours are benign; but a small percentage of them, for reasons that no one understands, burst into malignancy.

Many other cancers, if they spread, acquire certain features of neuroendocrine tumours. The first person to own a successful anti-neuroendocrine cancer drug – it doesn’t even have to cure the disease, just slow its progress as anti-retrovirals have done with Aids – will be not only healthy but also Steve Jobs-rich. Last year the pharmaceuticals giant Amgen bought a cancer-assassinating version of the herpes virus for $1 billion. That Magnus’s virus could be held up by a minuscule £1 million dumbfounded me.

‘That’s a banker’s bonus,’ I said. ‘Less than a rock star’s gold toilet seat. It’s the best bargain going. If I found someone to give you this money, would you start the clinical trials?’

‘Of course,’ replied Magnus. ‘Shall I ask the Swedish Cancer Board how soon we can begin?’

I do not have a million pounds. But for £68 I flew to Uppsala. I wanted to pester Prof Essand about his work, face to face, and see this virus, face to petri dish. I wanted to slip some into my mittens, smuggle it back to England in an ice pack and jab it into Dido.

Magnus’s work is already funded by the Swedish Cancer Society and the Swedish Children Cancer Society (neuroblastoma, the most common cancer in infants, is a type of neuroendocrine tumour). A virus that he previously developed (against prostate cancer) is about to enter human trials in Rotterdam, supported by a European Union grant.

The difficulty with Magnus’s virus is not that it is outré, but that it is not outré enough. It is a modified version of an adenovirus, which is known to be safe in humans. It originates from humans, occurring naturally in the adenoids. The disadvantage is that it is too safe: the immune system has had thousands of years to learn how to dispatch such viruses the moment they stray out of the adenoids. It is not the fact that Magnus is using a virus to deal with cancer that makes his investigation potentially so valuable, but the novel way he has devised to get round this problem of instant elimination by the immune system, and enable the virus to spread through tumours in other parts of the body.

The closer you get to manipulating the cellular forces of human existence, the more you sound like a schoolboy babbling about his model aeroplane. Everything in the modern genetics lab is done with kits. There are no fizzing computer lights or fractionating columns dribbling out coagulations of genetic soup in Magnus’s lab; not a single Bunsen burner. Each narrow laboratory room has pale, uncluttered melamine worktops running down both sides, wall units above and small blue cardboard cartons dotted everywhere. Even in their genetics labs, Swedes enjoy an air of flatpack-ness. The most advanced medical lab in the world, and it looks like a half-fitted kitchen.

To make and test their virus, Magnus buys cell lines pre-fab (including ‘human foreskin fibro-blast’) for $50-100 from a company in California; DNA and ‘enzyme mix’ arrive in $179 packets from Indiana; protein concentrations are tested ‘according to the manufacturer’s instructions’ with a DIY kit ($117) from Illinois; and for $79, a parcel from Santa Cruz contains (I haven’t made this up) ‘horseradish peroxidase conjugated donkey anti-goat antibody’.

In a room next to Magnus’s office, a chatty woman with a ponytail is putting DNA inside bacteria. This God-like operation of primal delicacy involves taking a test tube with a yellow top from a $146 Qiagen kit, squirting in a bit of liquid with a pipette and putting the result in a box similar to a microwave: ‘turn the dial to 25 kilovolts and oophlah! The bacteria, they get scared, they let the DNA in. All done,’ the woman says. As the bacteria divide, the desirable viral fragments increase.

What costs the £1 million (less than two per cent of the price of Francis Bacon’s Triptych 1976) that Magnus needs to bring this medicine to patients is not the production, but the health-and-safety paperwork to get the trials started. Trials come in three phases. What Magnus was suggesting for his trifling £1 million (two Mont Blanc diamond-encrusted pens) was not just a phase I trial, but also a phase II, which, all being well, would bring the virus right to the point where a big pharmaceuticals company would pay 10 or 100 times as much to take it over and organise the phase III trial required by law to presage full-scale drug development.

‘So, if Calvin Klein or Elton John or… Paris Hilton stumped up a million, could they have the virus named after them?’

‘Why not?’ Magnus nodded, showing me the bacteria incubator, which looks like an industrial clothes washer, only less complicated. ‘We can make an even better one for two million.’

There are reasons to be cautious. A recent investigation by Amgen found that 47 of 53 papers (on all medical subjects, not just viruses) by academics in top peer-reviewed science journals contained results that couldn’t be reproduced, even though company scientists repeated the experiments up to 50 times. ‘That’s why we have to have such a careful peer-review process,’ Dr Tim Meyer, Dido’s energetic, soft-spoken oncologist, warns. ‘Everybody thinks that their new treatment for cancer is worth funding, but everybody is also keen that only good-quality research is funded.’ Similar to Prof Essand in youth but less polite of hair, Dr Meyer is the co-director of the Experimental Cancer Medicine Centre at University College London. Beside his office, banks of white-coated researchers are bent over desks, busy with pipettes and microscopes. His team pursues an exciting brew of new anti-cancer ideas: antibody-targeted therapy, vascular therapy, DNA binding agents and photodynamic therapy. Each of these shows remarkable promise. But even for such a brilliant and innovative team as this, money is not flowing.

Everyone in cancer science is fighting for ever-decreasing small pools of cash, especially now the government has started tiptoeing into charities at night and rifling the collection boxes. It is big news that Dr Meyer and the UCL team won a grant of £2.5 million, spread out over the next five years, to continue his institute’s cutting-edge investigations into cancers that kill off thousands of us every week: leukaemia; melanoma; gynaecological, gastrointestinal and prostate cancers. Without this money, he would have had to sack 13 members of staff. The sum of £2.5 million is roughly what Madonna earns in 10 days.

He peers at Magnus’s pairs of photographs of splayed rodents with glowing tumours in one shot that have vanished in the next. He knows the Uppsala neuroendocrine team well and has great respect for them. ‘It may be good,’ he agrees. But until Magnus’s findings are tested in a clinical trial, nobody knows how good the work is. Astonishing results in animals are often disappointing in humans. ‘We all need to be subject to the same rules of competitive grant funding and peer review in order to use scarce resources in the most effective manner.’

Back at home with whisky and fags, I nursed my entrepreneurialism. There are currently about half a dozen cancer research institutes in Europe developing adenoviruses to treat cancer – all of them pathetically short of cash. Enter the Vanity Virus Initiative. Pop a couple of million over to Uppsala University, and you will go down in medical books as the kind heart who relieved Ad5[CgA-E1A-miR122]PTD of its hideous hump of a moniker, and gave it the glamour of your own name. What’s the worst that can happen? Even if Magnus’s innovations don’t work in clinical trials the negative results will be invaluable for the next generation of viruses. For the rest of time, your name will pop up in the reference sections of medical papers as the (insert your name here) virus that enabled researchers to find the cure for cancer by avoiding Magnus’s error.

On my third glass of whisky, I wrote an email to Dr Meyer suggesting that he issue a shopping list each year at the time that bankers receive their bonuses, which could be circulated in the City. The list would itemise the therapies that his Experimental Cancer Medicine Centre have selected for support, and quantify how much would be needed in each case to cover all outstanding funds and ensure that the work is branded with your name.

The corridors connecting the different research departments of the Uppsala medical campus are built underground, in order to protect the staff from death during the Swedish winters. Professors and lab technicians zip back and forth along these enormous rectangular tunnels on scooters, occasionally scratching their heads at the tangled intersections where three or four passageways meet at once, then pushing off again, gowns flying, one leg pounding the concrete floor like a piston, until they find the right door, drop the scooter and rise back upstairs by lift. Suspended from the ceiling of these corridors is a vacuum tube that schluuuuups up tissue samples at top speed, and delivers them to the appropriate investigative team. Magnus led me along these tunnels to the Uppsala University Hospital, to visit the chief oncologist, Kjell (pronounced ‘Shell’) Oberg – the man who will run the trial once the money is in place.

‘The trouble with Magnus’s virus is Magnus is Swedish,’ he says, wincing and clutching the air with frustration.

‘It is so,’ Magnus agrees sorrowfully. Swedishly uninterested in profiteering, devoted only to the purity of science, Magnus and his co-workers on this virus have already published the details of their experiments in leading journals around the world, which means that the modified virus as it stands can no longer be patented. And without a patent to make the virus commercial, no one will invest. Even if I could raise the £2 million (I want only the best version) to get the therapy to the end of phase II trials, no organisation is going to step forward to run the phase III trial that is necessary to make the therapy public.

‘Is that because pharmaceuticals companies are run by ruthless plutocrats who tuck into roast baby with cranberry sauce for lunch and laugh at the sick?’ I ask sneerily.

‘It is because,’ Kjell corrects me, ‘only if there’s a big profit can such companies ensure that everyone involved earns enough to pay their mortgage.’

There is no ready source of public funds, either. For reasons understood only by Wotan and Thor, the Swedish government refuses to finance clinical trials in humans, even when the results could potentially slash the country’s health bill by billions of kronor.

All is not lost, however. Kjell does not have to wait until the end of the trials – which could take as much as 10 years – for the full, three-phase process before being able to inject Magnus’s virus into his patients, because as soon as the test samples are approved and ready for use, he can by European law start offering the medicine, on an individual basis, to patients who sign a waiver confirming that they’re prepared to risk experimental treatments. Within 18 months he could be starting his human case-studies.

At several moments during my research into this cancer-delaying virus from the forests of Scandinavia I have felt as though there were someone schlocky from Hollywood operating behind the scenes. The serendipitous discovery of it on the internet; the appalling frustration of being able to see the new therapy, to stand with my hand against the freezer door knowing that it is three inches away, not well-guarded, and that it might work even in its crude current state, but that I may not use it; the thrill of Kjell Oberg’s powerful support; the despair over the lack of such a silly, artificial thing as a patent. Now, Dr Leja steps into the narrative: she is the virologist whose brilliant doctoral thesis first put me on to the cancer-eating-virus-left-in-a-freezer, and whose name heads all the subsequent breakthrough research papers about this therapy. She turns out to be 29, to look like Scarlett Johansson and to wear voluptuous red lipstick.

Justyna Leja slinks up from her chair, shakes my hand and immediately sets off into a baffling technical discussion with Magnus about a good way to get the patent back for the virus, by a subtle manipulation that involves something called a ‘new backbone’. She also has in mind a small extra tweak to the new-backboned microbe’s outer coat, which will mean that the virus not only bursts the cancer cells it infects, but also provokes the immune system to attack tumours directly. It will be easy to see if it works in animals – but is it worth lumbering the current virus with it for use in humans, who tend to be less responsive? The extra preparatory work could delay the phase I and II trials for a further year.

Back at his lab, Magnus opened up the infamous freezer. I took a step towards the plastic flasks of virus: he nipped the door shut with an appreciative smile.

‘What would you do,’ I asked bitterly, returning my hand to my pocket, ‘if it were your wife who had the disease, or one of your sons whose photograph I saw on your desk?’

He glanced back at the freezer. Although his lab samples are not made to pharmaceutical grade, they would be only marginally less trustworthy than a fully-sanctioned, health-and-safety certified product that is between 1,000 and 10,000 times more expensive.

‘I don’t know,’ he groaned, tugging his hair in despair at the thought. ‘I don’t know.’

To donate money to Professor Magnus Essand’s research on viral treatments for neuroendocrine cancer, send contributions to Uppsala University, The Oncolytic Virus Fund, Box 256, SE-751 05 Uppsala, Sweden, or visit Contributions will be acknowledged in scientific publications and in association with the clinical trial. A donation of £1 million will ensure the virus is named in your honour