Cancer Care: Research into herpesvirus shows promise in early human trial

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The researchers said there were no life-threatening adverse events reported in the trial, with the most common symptoms post-treatment being fever, chills, and other flu-like illnesses

A new research has shown that a genetically modified version of the herpesvirus may be effective in treating difficult-to-eradicate cancer tumors, with one patient having experienced a complete remission for 15 months so far.

The research published on Gizmodo shows that although preliminary data from a Phase I trial is promising, more research will be needed to confirm the treatment’s early success.

The viral treatment known as RP2 is a genetically engineered strain of herpes simplex 1, the virus responsible for most cases of oral herpes in humans, as well as some cases of genital herpes.

The findings, presented at the 2022 European Society for Medical Oncology Congress (ESMO), are preliminary and also based on a very small sample size, meaning that any results should be taken with caution.

“Our study shows that a genetically engineered, cancer-killing virus can deliver a one-two punch against tumors—directly destroying cancer cells from within while also calling in the immune system against them,” the lead author Kevin Harrington, professor of Biological Cancer Therapies at The Institute of Cancer Research (ICC), said in a statement.

How it works
The RP2 treatment, developed by the company Replimune, is designed to work on two fronts.

“To be injected directly into the tumor, the virus is supposed to selectively infect and kill certain cancer cells. But it also blocks the expression of a protein known as CTLA-4 produced by these cells, and it hijacks their machinery to produce another molecule called GM-CSF,” the researchers said.

The net result of these cellular changes, they argued, is to weaken cancer’s ability to hide from and fend off the immune system.

In a Phase I trial conducted by scientists at ICC and Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust in the UK, RP2 was said to have been given as the only treatment to nine patients with advanced cancers that failed to respond to other therapies; it was also given in combination with another immunotherapy drug to 30 patients.

Three patients on RP2 were said to have appeared to respond to the treatment, “meaning their cancers shrank or stopped growing, and seven patients on the combination therapy responded as well.”

“One patient in particular, with a form of carcinoma along his salivary gland, has shown no signs of cancer for at least 15 months after treatment with RP2 alone,” the report indicated.

There were no life-threatening adverse events reported in the trial, with the most common symptoms post-treatment being fever, chills, and other flu-like illnesses.

Great development
Although scientists have been hopeful about cancer-fighting viruses for a long time, it’s only recently that this hope has finally started to pay off.

In 2015, the first viral therapy was approved in the U.S. for certain advanced cases of melanoma. This May, scientists in California launched a Phase I clinical trial of their anticancer virus, called Vaxinia.

Other companies are developing their own candidates, either alone or in combination with other treatments. Replimune is said to be developing two other candidates based on their modified herpesvirus.

“While many experimental therapies ultimately fail to cross the finish line and reach the public, it’s possible at least some of these viruses could one day become a new standard cancer treatment,” the report said.

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