Herpes-based drug effective against skin cancer

A genetically-modified version of the herpes virus causes cancer cells to burst from within and motivates the immune system to attack and destroy tumors.

By Stephen Feller

LONDON, May 27 (UPI) -- A genetically engineered version of the herpes virus can kill skin cancer cells and spur the immune system into action against tumors, according to the first Phase 3 trial to show that viral immunotherapy can benefit cancer patients.

Researchers gave a random selection of 436 patients with aggressive, inoperable malignant melanoma in the study either the drug Talimogene Laherparepvec, called T-VEC, or a control treatment. The study found that those given T-VEC showed a positive response and lived longer than those who received the control.


"There is increasing excitement over the use of viral treatments like T-VEC for cancer, because they can launch a two-pronged attack on tumors -- both killing cancer cells directly and marshalling the immune system against them," said Kevin Harrington, Professor of Biological Cancer Therapies at the Institute of Cancer Research in London, in a press release. "And because viral treatment can target cancer cells specifically, it tends to have fewer side-effects than traditional chemotherapy or some of the other new immunotherapies."

The herpes virus used in T-VEC is modified so that it cannot replicate in healthy cells, which detect and destroy it, however it replicates within cancer cells and causes them to burst. The genetic modifications also cause the virus to produce a molecule that stimulates the patient's immune system to attack and destroy the tumor.


Based on the results of the study, which showed the most dramatic results in less advanced cancers, researchers see T-VEC as a first-line defense treatment against melanoma that can't be surgically removed.

The study is published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

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