Medical researchers at the University of Iowa are taking part in an international study on measles that could eventually provide a new weapon in cancer treatment.

Dr. Patrick Sinn, a pediatrics professor at the U-of-I, says their research has up-ended the long-held school of thought on the movement of measles, which afflicts ten-million children globally each year.

“Measles has always been thought to infect the lung cells first and then spread throughout the body,” Dr. Sinn says. “What we found over the course of our investigation is that’s backwards. It gets in through immune cells and gets directed to your lymphatic system and then it replicates throughout your body and then the last place is hits is your airway cells.”

Central Iowa had a measles scare this May when a Dallas County child tested positive for measles after taking a flight from Chicago to Des Moines.

About a hundred people were tested in connection with the case, but no one else was infected. In 2009, a child from Spencer was infected, prompting hundreds of people to be tested though again, none were infected.

“In the United States, we don’t typically think of measles as a problem because most people are vaccinated,” Sinn says. “However, you do see on the news where measles outbreaks have occurred especially among people who don’t have their children vaccinated. It’s also a huge problem in foreign countries where they don’t have access to vaccinations.”

While measles kills about 120,000 children worldwide each year, the measles virus is also deadly to certain cancer cells.

Researchers are still learning how measles attacks and destroys select types of ovarian and brain cancers and hope to apply their findings.

It’s possible other cancer types, including lung and breast, could be targeted with measles virus, which researchers hope will prove to be a less toxic treatment than chemotherapy or radiation.

Sinn says, “It’s still important to really understand how measles is spread, not only within your body but between people, since measles is typically considered one of the most contagious viruses that exist.”

Symptoms of measles include: a high fever, cough, runny nose, watery eyes and a red rash that moves from the face to the rest of the body.

Other university research teams taking part in the study are in: Minnesota, North Carolina, Germany, Canada and France.