Cancer-killing treatment using a common cold virus offers hope to patients with inoperable tumors 

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Cancer-killing treatment using a common cold virus offers hope to patients with inoperable tumors

  • Phase I clinical trial announced Friday was conducted at NYU Langone Health
  • Used a combination of a live cold virus with an immunotherapy drug 
  • Treatment shrank melanoma tumors in 47% of the trial’s 36 participants 
  • Several studies have examined how oncolytic viruses can be used on cancer

A new study using one of the viruses responsible for the common cold has shown promise in treating advanced skin cancer that could not be treated with surgery.

The results of the Phase 1 study, led by a researcher at NYU Langone Health and its Perlmutter Cancer Center, were announced on Friday, adding to the growing body of research into oncolytic viruses.

The clinical trial utilized live coxsackievirus, one of the many viruses that can cause a common cold, in combination with pembrolizumab, an immunotherapy drug known as pembro or Keytruda.

The researchers say that the combination shrank melanoma tumors in nearly half (47 percent) of 36 men and women who received the therapy every few weeks for at least two years.

The clinical trial utilized live coxsackievirus (above), one of the many viruses that can cause a common cold, in combination with pembrolizumab, an immunotherapy drug

The clinical trial utilized live coxsackievirus (above), one of the many viruses that can cause a common cold, in combination with pembrolizumab, an immunotherapy drug

‘Our initial study results are very promising and show that this oncolytic virus injection, a modified coxsackievirus, when combined with existing immunotherapy is not only safe but has the potential to work better against melanoma than immunotherapy alone,’ said Dr. Janice Mehnert, the study’s senior investigator and a medical oncologist, in a statement.

Mehnert cautioned that further testing, which is already underway, would have to prove successful before the combination treatment could become a ‘standard of care,’ or go-to therapy, for patients with advanced melanoma, meaning melanoma that has spread to other parts of the body.

She added that the next phase of clinical trials will involve patients with melanoma that has become widespread, as well as in patients whose tumors, if shrunken by the drug combination, could be more easily removed by surgery.

Intriguingly, the study found that patients least likely to respond to immunotherapy alone were those who responded best to the combined treatment. 

For example, patients who responded best to the combined treatment had fewer of the chemical receptors (PDL1) on the surfaces of cancer cells that are blocked by pembrolizumab than patients who did not respond as well.

Researchers say further experiments are needed to determine how the live virus changes the molecular makeup of the tissues immediately surrounding tumors. 

A common cold virus could one day be used to treat cancer, research suggests (stock)

A common cold virus could one day be used to treat cancer, research suggests (stock)

‘Our goal is to determine if the virus turns the tumor microenvironment from ‘friendly’ to one that is ‘unfriendly,’ making the cancer cells more vulnerable to pembrolizumab,’ said Mehnert. 

The volunteers in the latest study were mostly seniors, who enrolled at three cancer clinics, including Rutgers Cancer Institute in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Gabrail Cancer Center in Canton, Ohio and John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, California.

Scientists have known since the 1800s that some cancer patients who suffered from infections, later tied to bacteria or viruses that cause measles and herpes, often experience tumor shrinkage. 

Recent technological advances in genetic engineering have allowed scientists to retool viruses to target specific molecules on the surface of cancer cells to more easily infect them. 

A separate study in the UK in 2019 found that the same strain of coxsackievirus used in the Langone trial (CVA21) destroys bladder cancer cells. 

The majority of the prior study’s 15 patients showed signs of ‘cell death’ within their tumors after just one week of treatment. 

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