London scientists find cancer tumours in terminally ill patients are eradicated by herpes virus

A genetically-engineered cold sore virus is the new hope to beat cancer after scientists found it could eradicate or shrink tumours in terminally ill patients.

Patients were injected with the weakened form of the herpes simplex virus that has been modified to kill cancer cells in an early trial at the Institute for Cancer Research (ICR) in London.

The injection is given directly into the tumour, attacking it in two ways — by invading the cells and making them burst and boosting the immune system.

RP2 was tested on 39 patients with cancers including people suffering from skin, oesophageal and head and neck tumours. 

A patient from West London has hailed the drug as a ‘true miracle’ after he was able to go back to work as a builder. 

Overall, three out of nine patients treated with RP2 saw their tumours shrink. Seven out of 30 patients who received the drug and immunotherapy also got better.

While larger studies are needed, the drug could offer lifeline for those with late stage cancer. 

A genetically-engineered herpes virus is the new hope to beat cancer after scientists found tumours in terminally ill patients were eradicated using the new therapy. Pictured: Stock image

Krzysztof Wojkowski, 39, was diagnosed with Mucoepidermoid carcinoma, a type of salivary gland cancer, in May 2017.

After multiple surgeries to remove his tumours, he was told that there were no treatment options left.

WHAT IS RP2? 

RP2 is a genetically-engineered cold sore virus, known as herpes simplex.

It has been weakened and modified to seek and destroy cancer cells.

The injection is given directly into the tumour and attacks it in two ways.

It multiplies inside cancer cells to burst them from within.

It also blocks a protein known as CTLA-4 – releasing the brakes on the immune system and increasing the body’s ability to kill cancer cells on its own.

RP2 was tested on 39 patients with cancers including people suffering from skin, oesophageal and head and neck cancers.

Three out of nine patients treated with herpes saw their tumours shrink.

One of these – a builder who suffered from salivary gland cancer – saw his tumour disappear completely.

He remains free of cancer 15 months later.

Seven out of 30 patients who received both RP2 and the immunotherapy nivolumab also benefitted from treatment. 

In this group, four out of nine patients with melanoma skin cancer, two out of eight patients with the eye cancer uveal melanoma, and one out of three patients with head and neck cancer saw their cancer’s growth halt or shrink.

Of the seven patients receiving the combination who saw a benefit, six remained progression-free at 14 months.

‘I had injections every two weeks for five weeks which completely eradicated my cancer,’ he said. 

‘I’ve been cancer free for two years now, it’s a true miracle, there is no other word to describe it.

‘I’ve been able to work as a builder again and spend time with my family, there’s nothing I can’t do.’

Mr Wojkowski added: ‘I was told there were no options left for me and I was receiving end of life care, it was devastating, so it was incredible to be given the chance to join the trial at The Royal Marsden, it was my final lifeline.’

The research team are hoping to move to bigger trials after they presented the study at the European Society for Medical Oncology Congress (ESMO). 

Study leader Professor Kevin Harrington, Professor of Biological Cancer Therapies at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, said: ‘Our study shows that a genetically engineered, cancer-killing virus can deliver a one-two punch against tumours – directly destroying cancer cells from within while also calling in the immune system against them.

The Consultant Oncologist  at The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, added: ‘It is rare to see such good response rates in early-stage clinical trials, as their primary aim is to test treatment safety and they involve patients with very advanced cancers for whom current treatments have stopped working.

‘Our initial trial findings suggest that a genetically engineered form of the herpes virus could potentially become a new treatment option for some patients with advanced cancers – including those who haven’t responded to other forms of immunotherapy. I am keen to see if we continue to see benefits as we treat increased numbers of patients.’

The genetically engineered RP2 virus, which is injected directly into the tumours, is designed to have a dual action against tumours.

It multiplies inside cancer cells to burst them from within, and it also blocks a protein known as CTLA-4 – releasing the brakes on the immune system and increasing its ability to kill cancer cells. 

Three out of nine patients treated with herpes benefitted with one salivary gland cancer patient seeing his tumour disappear completely and remain free of cancer 15 months after starting treatment. 

Seven out of 30 patients who received both RP2 and the immunotherapy nivolumab also benefitted from treatment. 

In the group, four out of nine patients with melanoma skin cancer, two out of eight patients with the eye cancer uveal melanoma, and one out of three patients with head and neck cancer saw their cancer’s growth halt or shrink.

Of the seven patients receiving the combination who saw a benefit, six remained progression-free at 14 months.

Professor Kristian Helin, Chief Executive of The Institute of Cancer Research, London, said: ‘Viruses are one of humanity’s oldest enemies, as we have all seen over the pandemic. But our new research suggests we can exploit some of the features that make them challenging adversaries to infect and kill cancer cells. 

‘It’s a small study but the initial findings are promising. I very much hope that as this research expands we see patients continue to benefit.’

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