Cancer is one of the most feared diseases to plague humanity today. Many people associate cancer with death, and understandably so. The World Health Organisation estimates that one in every six deaths is caused by one cancer or the other.
Cancer deaths occur for many reasons, including late diagnosis at an advanced stage of the disease and treatment-related factors. Although science has come a long way in devising ways to beat cancer, research is ongoing to develop new treatment options.
At the 2022 European Society for Medical Oncology Congress (ESMO), some scientists reported the early results of a Phase I clinical trial, and it seems like good news.
Researchers from the Institute of Cancer Research, London, and the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust performed an experiment where they genetically modified the herpes simplex virus to treat cancer.
Herpes Simplex Virus?
Do you know some people who get sores around their lips each time they get stressed or fall sick? Those ‘cold sores’ are caused by HSV-1, a subtype of the herpes simplex virus. Similar blisters and ulcers may also happen in the genital region after sexual intercourse with a carrier of either HSV-1 or HSV-2 virus.
Herpes simplex is a group of DNA viruses that is quite common in our environment. It is estimated that by the 5th decade of life, 90% of the population will have been exposed to the virus. However, not everybody will show symptoms of active infection.
How did such a common virus become a cancer-killing machine?
From Cold Sores To Cancer Killer
The researchers used genetic engineering to modify herpes virus so that it became oncolytic: having the ability to kill cancer cells. This altered HSV is called RP2.
RP2 has characteristics that allow it to only recognise and interact with abnormal cancer cells while sparing healthy tissues in the body. It comes as an injectable formula that is injected directly into the tumours to destroy them.
RP2 works in two ways
- It multiplies within the cancerous tumor and kills it from within
- It also makes the body’s natural immune system more sensitive and aggressive toward cancer cells. This way, it enhances the body’s ability to destroy cancer.
Phase I clinical trials are usually done to understand how safe a new type of medical intervention is. RP2 was found to be safe with few side effects. Patients who were given the treatment only had minor complaints like tiredness, fever, and chills.
The Impressive RP2
In addition to its safety profile, RP2 also showed impressive cancer-killing ability. Nine patients were given RP2 alone, while 30 others were given a combination of RP2 and an immunotherapy cancer drug during the trial. The patients had different kinds of advanced cancers. Of the RP2-only group, three patients showed good results (their cancers either shrunk significantly or stopped growing), and seven from the combination group responded as well.
The effect of RP2 has been encouraging. A patient already on end-of-life/palliative care was cured of his cancer after receiving the RP2 injection and has remained cancer-free for close to 2 years now! RP2 worked for him when every other available treatment failed.
This modified herpes virus may be the answer we have been waiting for in the fight against cancer.
As innovative as the RP2 experiment sounds, modifying viruses to attack cancer cells is not new in the scientific community. The U.S Food & Drug Administration even approved T-VEC, a genetically altered virus, as a treatment option for advanced melanoma- a type of skin cancer. However, RP2 may be a game changer because it may effectively treat different cancers, not just melanoma.
The RP2 research is likely to begin its Phase II trial in the near future, and we eagerly await further reports!
Also Read: Is The Cure for Cancer Finally Here?