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Common virus able to target brain cancer

Published on 04/01/18 at 02:36pm
Image: NIH

Research emerging from the University of Leeds and The Institute of Cancer research has revealed that a virus, known as the reovirus, is able to breach the blood-brain barrier, and effectively kill cancer cells.

Reovirus has been shown by previous research to be able to kill cancer cells but it was not known whether the virus would be able to permeate into brain.

In order to discover whether this was possible, the researchers conducted a small trial of nine people. All patients were assigned to undergo brain surgery to remove tumours and so, two days prior to the surgery, participants were injected with the virus.

The tumours that were cut away were then examined to determine whether the virus had managed to penetrate into the brain and infect the cancer cells. All nine participants were found to have evidence of the virus in the cancer cells, meaning that the virus had successfully breached the protective membrane of the brain.

In addition to this, the research discovered that the virus had been more effective at killing the cancer cells than expected. It was already known that the reovirus was able to kill cancer cells alone but the study also revealed a higher level of interferons, proteins that signal to the immune system to attack cancer cells.

In order to ensure the results weren’t by chance, the researchers also examined tumour cells taken from patients not receiving the virus treatment – they were found not to contain the virus or the elevated levels of interferons.

Dr Adel Samson, co-author and medical oncologist at the Leeds Institute of Cancer and Pathology, said: “This is the first time that it has been shown that a therapeutic virus is able to pass through the brain-blood barrier, and that opens up the possibility that this type of immunotherapy could be used to treat more people with aggressive brain cancers.

“This study was about showing that a virus could be delivered to a tumour in the brain. Not only was it able to reach its target, but there were signs it stimulated the body’s own immune defences to attack the cancer.”

The reason that reovirus is able to so effectively target the cancerous cells is that people naturally develop a resistance to the virus as they age. However, cancer cells do not have such a strong defence against viruses, allowing the virus to invade, replicate and destroy such cells.

The next step for research is to determine whether the virus is able to boost standard treatment against brain cancers. Such a clinical trial is currently already underway, with patients having been treated with the virus alongside radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

In the new version of the trial, patients are being given repeated doses of the virus due to the way in which it kick-starts the immune system to fight the cancer. Should the trial prove effective, it could lead to a treatment breakthrough in the area that, for brain cancers, are few and far between.

Ben Hargreaves

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