Using Polio to Kill Brain Cancer

Rarely, am I super impressed with medical discoveries.

I can’t say that for this piece I just saw on the news magazine 60 Minutes.

Cancer treatment has gone through various stages. First surgery. Then came the advent of radiation therapy followed by chemotherapy.

But now, the newest frontier in the fight against cancer is your body’s own immune system which makes the most sense, right? If we could train the immune system to seek and destroy cancer cells like it does bacteria and viruses then whole hosts of people wouldn’t have to face death related to this, often times, devastating diagnosis.

I’ve blogged here about the use of the measles virus in treatment of cancer.

Now, researchers at Duke University are using a genetically modified polio virus to kill brain cancer . . . and it’s working.

Glioblastoma is a particularly aggressive, nasty brain tumor. As stated in the piece, it’s usual for this cancer to double its size in 2-4 weeks.

What I learned about cancer cells in this piece that I didn’t know before is that they are smart. I remember learning in my pathophysiology class in college that cancer cells were merely your own cells running amok– dividing uncontrollably and invading normal functioning tissue. Perhaps this is why our own immune systems don’t attack it as the potential killer that it is– because it is our own cells.

The doctors at Duke University are attempting to change this. They took a small group of patients who had glioblastoma for the second time. These patients had already been through standard therapy at it failed.

They surgically implanted a catheter into the center of the tumor and then gave the patient an infusion of modified polio virus directly into the tumor.

What happens is two things. One, the body recognizes the polio and begins to attack it. Second, the virus seems to also strip the protective coating of the cancer cells so the body recognizes it and begins to attack it as well. The body amounts an impressive immune response and MRI’s initially show massive inflammation around the tumor, but then, over a period of 4-8 months, the body’s immune system begins breaking down the tumor.

Two patients who received this treatment first are now cancer free for nearly three years. That is unheard of with this kind of brain tumor. I mean– it is miraculous.

After the researchers had success with the first several patients, they attempted to double the dose to see if they could get a better immune response. In fact, they did get a massive immune response but it proved to be too much for the patients and several of them died.

Now, they are using smaller doses and it remains to be seen if this is a cure but it’s so promising that in a year, the FDA may cut their red tape to make it available to lots more patients.

Truly, truly impressive. I mean for us medical nerds– it is jaw dropping.

Now, of course, there is always worry that modifying viruses could lead to potential breakouts of untreatable illness. That’s definitely fodder for any medical thriller.

But today, let’s bask in the glory of this amazing discovery and what it could mean for patients who receive this deadly diagnosis.

For more information on this study you can view the piece here.

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