A modified herpes virus shows promise in killing cancer cells – with one patient seeing the disease go away completely.
The patients were injected with a drug that is a weakened form of the herpes virus – herpes simplex – that has been modified to destroy tumors.
While more research is needed, it may provide a lifeline for people living with terminal cancer.
Krzysztof Wojkowski, 39, a builder from West London, has gone from hospice to cancer-free after taking part in the trial.
Mr Wojkowski was diagnosed with Mucoepidermoid carcinoma, a type of salivary gland cancer, in May 2017.
Despite having undergone multiple surgeries, he was told that there were no other treatment options left, before being given the opportunity to participate in the RP2 trial at The Royal Marsden in 2020.
He said: “I was told there were no options left for me and I was in hospice care, it was devastating, so it was unbelievable to be given the opportunity to take part in the trial at The Royal Marsden, it’s my last resort..
“I had injections every two weeks for 5 weeks to completely get rid of my cancer. I’ve been cancer free for two years now, it’s a real miracle, there are no other words to describe it. there.
“I was able to go back to work as a builder and spend time with my family, there’s nothing I can’t do.”
The genetically engineered virus, injected directly into tumors, is designed to have a dual effect – it multiplies inside cancer cells to make them explode from the inside, and it also blocks a protein. called CTLA-4, unleashes the immune system and increases its ability to kill cancer cells.
It is rare to see such a promise in initial tests
Three of the nine patients treated with RP2 saw their tumors shrink.
Seven of the 30 patients treated with both RP2 and nivolumab immunotherapy also benefited from the treatment.
In this group, four out of nine patients with melanoma, two out of eight with ocular melanoma, and one out of three with head and neck cancer saw growths. of their cancer stops or shrinks.
Of the seven patients who received the combination who saw a benefit, six remained progress-free for 14 months.
According to study leader Professor Kevin Harrington, professor of biological cancer therapies at the Institute of Cancer Research, London, and consultant oncologist at The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust. such a good response rate. .
“Our study shows that a genetically engineered cancer-killing virus can deliver a one-of-a-kind punch against tumors – directly killing cancer cells from internally while simultaneously calling on the immune system to fight them.
“It’s rare to see such good response rates in early-stage clinical trials, because their primary purpose is to test treatment safety and they involve patients with very advanced cancers. that current treatments have stopped working.
“Our initial experimental findings suggest that a genetically engineered form of the herpes virus could become a new treatment option for some patients with late-stage cancer – including those who do not. response to other forms of immunotherapy.
“I’d love to see if we continue to see benefits as we treat an increasing number of patients.”
Exploiting the features of the virus
Professor Kristian Helin, CEO of the Institute of Cancer Research, London, said it was possible to exploit some of the characteristics of the virus.
They said: “Viruses are one of humanity’s oldest enemies, as we’ve seen during pandemics. But our new research shows we can exploit some of the characteristics that make them so challenging. the enemy infects and destroys cancer cells.”
“It was a small study but the early findings are promising. I very much hope that as this study expands, we will see patients continue to benefit.”