Could a modified cold sore virus cure brain cancer?

Herpes virus cells

A team of scientists in the US and the UK are combining a genetically modified cold sore virus with a cancer vaccine to treat an aggressive type of brain cancer in children.

The three-year survival rate for children with high-grade gliomas, without further complications, is only 11-22%, and the currently available treatments, radiotherapy and chemotherapy, can harm the child’s developing brain.

The researchers will use a genetically engineered herpes simplex virus type 1 to eliminate cancer cells. This type of virus is ideal for brain tumours because herpes naturally targets nerve cells.

The virus is engineered to enter the cancer cells and replicate rapidly, which breaks the cells open and exposes them to the immune system, effectively destroying them.

The research team has already used the virus in a small Phase I trial where responses to the treatment were seen in 11 out of 12 children. The virus also increased the number of immunity-boosting white blood cells within the tumours.

Researchers now want to combine the virus with a cancer vaccine called SNAPvax. This combined approach will allow the vaccine to prime the body’s immune system to attack cancer cells, as well as potentially sustaining the effects of the virus. This dual effect has already been observed in non-central nervous system adult tumours.

The research will be led by Dr Gregory Friedman, Professor of Paediatrics at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. He said: “Children with aggressive brain tumours are in desperate need of targeted, less-toxic therapies. Our research demonstrates that we can prime the immune system to target a tumour with a vaccine, which then enhances the ability of an altered cold-sore virus to stimulate an immune response against the tumour.”

Funding for the project

In 2022, CureSearch presented Dr Friedman with the CureSearch Acceleration Initiative award and committed to securing $1.5 million of funding for this research project.

CureSearch Acceleration Initiative projects are highly innovative, address a significant challenge in paediatric cancer drug development, and have an extremely strong probability of clinical application in an accelerated timeframe. LifeArc is contributing just over £660,000 ($826,000) of this.

“This project really stood out to us because this novel approach holds real promise in an area of high unmet medical need – aligning with our strategy.  Cancer is the major cause of death by disease for children under 14 years of age, yet medicines that specifically target childhood cancers are scarce. Survival rates are dismal and the damaging long-term effects of established cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy, are now well documented,” said Dr David Jenkinson, Head of Childhood Cancer, LifeArc.

Diana Spencer, Senior Digital Content Editor, DDW

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