Behind the Science

Using Viruses to Help Fight Cancer

Advances in science are allowing researchers to fight cancer with viruses.

By Elizabeth Hoffman

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Most often when you think of a virus, you may think of a cold or the flu, illnesses you try to avoid.  New research may change that perspective because recent studies show that certain viruses can actually be a powerful weapon in the body’s fight against cancer. The class of viruses, called oncolytic viruses, attack cancer cells while sparing healthy tissue.

Oncolytic virus therapy is a type of immunotherapy. Cancer researchers are genetically engineering common viruses to become a cancer-fighting virus. These viruses infect cancer cells that are more susceptible to infection. Oncolytic viruses are designed to destroy cancer cells while leaving healthy cells untouched.

New treatment options available now

“The evolution of oncolytic virus therapy is offering patients new treatment options,” says Arturo Loaiza-Bonilla, Chief of Medical Oncology and Medical Director of Research at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® in Philadelphia, Pennsylvannia.  “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently endorsed and approved new oncolytic virus therapies that we are using on our patients. Melanoma is a specific cancer type that currently benefits from these groundbreaking developments.”

One of these oncolytic viruses comes from a genetically modified herpes virus, more commonly known as the cold sore virus. T-VEC (Imlygic™) was the first oncolytic virus therapy approved by the FDA in 2015. Currently, T-VEC is approved to treat advanced melanoma cancers that cannot be completely removed with surgery.

T-VEC is a local treatment injected directly into melanoma lesions to treat those cells. The virus replicates within the cells, killing the cancerous cells while sparing healthy tissue. It may also enhance and wake-up the body’s immune system to fight cancer.

Oncolytic virus therapy gaining momentum

Researchers around the world are working on finding new cancer-killing viruses. Recently approved in China, an oncolytic adenovirus called H101 was genetically modified to fight head and neck cancer and has shown promising results.

“While this therapy is not yet approved in the U.S., the advancement is revolutionary in helping us better understand how to modify these viruses to help cancer patients,” says Dr. Loaiza-Bonilla. “In the future, we envision multiple viruses aimed at specific cancers, combined with immunotherapy to help patients fight their cancer.”

Future advances

Immunotherapy and oncolytic virus therapy are typically reserved for treating patients with advanced-stage cancer or those who have completed conventional therapy without positive results. Dr. Loaiza-Bonilla is encouraged by the recent developments: “As oncolytic virus therapy continues to evolve and new treatments are approved, we hope to incorporate it in the earlier phases of treatment to help save more lives.”