Genetically Modified Poliovirus Prolongs Lives Of People With Deadly Brain Cancer

The poliovirus has almost been entirely wiped out by vaccination efforts. Now we may use it to fight for us in the war on glioblastoma. vitstudio/Shutterstock

Robin Andrews 27 Jun 2018, 16:12

From using CRISPR to immune-stimulating agents, biomedical science has even got as far as not just killing off cancerous cells, but coming up with vaccines for them. These are, for the most part, carried out on animal subjects, though – a necessary safety and efficacy-checking step on the path to clinical use in humans.

That’s why a new study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, is so exciting: a new type of life-prolonging treatment for brain cancer seems to have taken hold in some human patients – and it relies on the use of the oft-dangerous poliovirus, something we’ve almost entirely eradicated.

The treatment, spearheaded by the Duke Cancer Institute in Durham, North Carolina, targeted glioblastoma, a particularly deadly form of brain cancer. From 2012 to 2017, 61 patients who had a particularly grim prognosis for their glioblastoma were given the treatment through a catheter surgically implanted in their skulls.

Half were still alive after just over 12 months, compared to 11.3 months for other patients that historically received conventional treatments. After 24 months, 21 percent of those given the new treatment were alive, compared to just 14 percent in the control group.

That 21 percent held over 36 months, while the control group dropped to 4 percent. Two of the patients were still alive at 69 months.

As the authors of the study note, “there is currently no effective therapy” for glioblastoma. Could this treatment be the answer? Perhaps, but it’s very early days.

This was a Phase I trial, one designed to see if the dose given during the treatment was safe or not. It had a small sample size, and results varied somewhat erratically between patients.

The treatment was ineffective for most, though, and as noted by Reuters, most patients experienced some sort of negative side effect.

Some patients on a higher dose experienced brain swelling and seizures, so the dose was adjusted. One patient, after the catheter was removed, suffered from a “grade 4 intracranial hemorrhage”, something that required emergency surgery to fix.

Despite all this, the results are promising. So how does the treatment use the poliovirus to work?

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