How an Experimental Virus Therapy Helps Kill Brain Tumors

Virus makes tumor more sensitive to cancer-killing medicine

How an Experimental Virus Therapy Helps Kill Brain Tumors

Glioblastoma is the most aggressive kind of cancerous brain tumor. Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation are standard treatments for this type of tumor. Many times, however, the measure of survival time is months, not years.

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For decades, scientists have been looking at whether viruses may hold the key to treating brain tumors. An early-phase clinical trial at Cleveland Clinic is investigating the use of an engineered virus to treat brain tumors. So far, the therapy is showing some signs of success, says neurosurgeon Michael Vogelbaum, MD, PhD.

Potential treatment

The experimental treatment involves injecting a live virus into a brain tumor. The virus spreads within the tumor. The virus carries a special gene that makes the tumor more sensitive to a specific medicine.

A few weeks later, the patient takes the medicine. When the drug reaches the virus-infected brain tumor cells, it’s converted into a chemical substance used in chemotherapy — which kills the tumor.

“The medication that’s given is relatively non-toxic to normal human cells,” Dr. Vogelbaum says. “It’s only the cells that have this gene, which the virus carries, that can convert it into a toxic chemotherapy.”

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The virus therapy focuses only on the cancer cells and is unlikely to affect other areas of the body. Humans don’t normally encounter this virus and have no immunity to it.

Such a therapy offers a great advantage for patients, who can reap the cancer-killing benefits of a chemotherapy-type drug without having to endure side effects such as hair loss, nausea and fatigue.

Next steps

This early-stage research shows the virus therapy is safe. Now doctors need to study how well it works.

“There are very few new treatments in the world of brain tumors that make it to this point,” Dr. Vogelbaum says.

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A 42-year-old man named Francois was given the virus therapy as part of the clinical trial at Cleveland Clinic.

He was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2014 and his cancer is now under control. 

“I have only one child, a son, and he was born when I discovered the problem. So he’s as old as my health problems. Anytime he celebrates another birthday I know how many years I got back,” Francois says.

The next phase of research has already begun. Dr. Vogelbaum says it will provide definitive evidence of whether virus therapy is an effective tool in the battle against brain tumors.

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