It’s fair to say viruses have been the bane of our collective existence in the past few years, with one particular pathogen causing unprecedented chaos and destruction. But, as the aphorism states, poison can be an effective cure – snake venom being a prime example.
It seems the adage can also be extended to viruses. This week, scientists dosed the first patient with an experimental cancer drug that uses a virus engineered to selectively kill cancer cells, while also amplifying the body’s immune response to the cancer.
The CF33-hNIS virus, also called Vaxinia, has shown promising results in mice and has successfully made the jump to human trials.
Created by researchers at the City of Hope National Medical Center in California, the treatment is an oncolytic virus, meaning it targets and infects tumor cells.
Researchers have known about the potential for oncolytic viruses in cancer treatment for decades, but until recently have not been able to effectively harness them. The breakthrough came when scientists began altering the approach to exploiting the virus.
The genetically modified CF33-hNIS virus launches a two-pronged attack against cancer cells. It not only infects and harms cancer cells, but also forces these cells to become more recognizable to the immune system.
Using the body’s natural immune system to fight cancer cells is the holy grail of of cancer treatment research, and is known as immunotherapy. Vaxinia falls under this category, while also increasing the efficacy of other immunotherapy treatments.
“Now is the time to further enhance the power of immunotherapy, and we believe CF33-hNIS has the potential to improve outcomes for our patients in their battle with cancer,” said lead study investigator Daneng Li, an assistant professor of City of Hope’s Department of Medical Oncology & Therapeutics Research, in a statement.
Phase 1 Trials
Vaxinia is currently in phase 1 of the trial gauntet. One hundred patients with metastatic or advanced solid tumors who have tried out at least two other treatments will receive Vaxinia alone or in combination with pembrolizumab, an immunotherapy drug.
Phase 1 is conducted primarily to test the safety and optimal dose of the drug. Patients will be monitored over the next few years to analyze Vaxinia’s efficacy. The full trial is expected to end in 2025.