Brain Cancer Therapy Goes Viral

Some of cancer’s strengths can also become its weaknesses. The very mutations that allow a tumor to grow may also make its cells more susceptible to invasion by certain viruses. BWH scientists are beginning clinical trials to further investigate the potential power of viruses for treating aggressive brain cancer without affecting healthy brain cells.

The idea of using viruses to treat cancer isn’t new. In fact, as early as the 19th century, physicians reported cases of patients going into remission following a viral infection. But the field may be reaching a critical turning point, according to E. Antonio Chiocca, MD, PhD, neurosurgeon-in- chief and chair of BWH Neurosurgery.

“Most people think of viruses as pathogenic microorganisms that infect cells, but our research efforts focus on an old hypothesis: can viruses be used to kill tumor cells,” said Chiocca. “We’ve reached an exciting inflection point and are translating our scientific findings into a first-in-man clinical trial being carried out here at the Brigham.”

Following decades of research, the first cancer-killing virus – or “oncolytic” virus – was approved by the FDA in 2015. Chiocca and his team have recently begun a Phase I clinical trial in patients with recurrent malignant glioma to test whether an engineered herpes virus can safely and effectively kill tumor cells.

While several pharmaceutical companies are developing their own oncolytic viruses for targeting various forms of cancer, Chiocca’s team is the first to begin clinical trials in patients with glioblastoma.

The study drug, known as rQNestin34.5v.2, is genetically engineered from herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1), which is most commonly known for causing oral and genital herpes infections. In its engineered form, the virus does not cause these infections in the host – in fact, it’s rendered incapable of replicating within normal cells. Instead, researchers genetically modify the virus to preferentially infect glioma cells, replicate within these cells and then destroy them.

This research study is a Phase I clinical trial, which means it tests the safety of an investigational drug, and also tries to define the appropriate dose of the investigational drug as a possible treatment for this diagnosis of recurrent or progressive brain tumor. The trial is currently enrolling participants.

“Oncolytic viral vectors are the new frontier of tumor treatment, and we are at the forefront of this trend. We are hoping to see the successes we had in the laboratory translate into marked improvements for our patients with brain tumors,” said Chiocca. “This clinical trial is the culmination of over a decade of research and testing.”

Patients with glioblastoma who would like to be considered for this trial can call the BWH Neurosurgery office at 617-732-6600 and schedule an appointment with one of the participating research doctors participating.

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