Scientists Use Herpes Virus to Treat Head and Neck Cancer

syringe-and-vialDoctors in London successfully used a genetically engineered version of the herpes virus to treat head and neck cancer in a small clinical trial of 17 patients. The virus, known as OncoVEX, was injected into the cancer-affected lymph nodes of 17 patients. Patients were given up to four doses of the virus in combination with chemotherapy and radiotherapy. The study was conducted by the Institute of Cancer Research and the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust.

Of the group, 82.3 percent of patients experienced apparent tumor shrinkage. About 93 percent of patients showed no residual cancer in their lymph nodes following subsequent surgery to remove them. After 29 months, 82.4 percent of patients were still alive. Only 2 of 13 patients who were given high doses of the virus relapsed.

OncoVEX, developed by Massachusetts-based biotechnology company BioVex, was engineered to multiply inside cancer cells while sparing healthy cells. Once inside, the virus would multiply and burst, killing the cancer cell. OncoVEX was also formulated to stimulate an immune response by producing a human protein.

According to Dr. Kevin Harrington, principal investigator in the study, 35 to 55 percent of patients with head and neck cancer experience a relapse. Although the trial was small, it was enough to spur development of a large-scale Phase III trial. Recruitment is expected to begin later this year. A Phase III trial for melanoma patients is currently recruiting.

Head and neck cancer can arise in the mouth, throat, larynx, lymph nodes, sinuses, or other areas in the head or neck region. According to the National Cancer Institute, head and neck cancers account for 3 to 5 percent of all cancers in the U.S. Approximately 650,000 people are diagnosed with squamous cell cancer of the head and neck worldwide each year. An estimated 350,000 people die from the disease annually. Other companies with head and neck cancer therapies in their pipelines include the following:

Nanospectra Biosciences, which is developing its AuroLase cancer therapy for the destruction of solid tumors.

Curis recently announced that it had dosed its first patient in a Phase Ib expansion study for CUDC-101 in patients with advanced head and neck, gastric, breast, and liver cancers. CUDC-101 is a small-molecule drug designed to inhibit three molecular targets in the cancer pathway that may allow cancer to grow and spread.

Oncolytics Biotech, based in Canada, has begun enrolling patients with advanced head and neck cancer in Phase III trials of chemotherapy combined with Reolysin, the company’s cancer drug candidate.

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