FDA Approves Cancer-Killing Virus

Imlygic, the most recent treatment approved for melanoma patients, is not expected to have any immediate dramatic effects on cancer treatment, but could have a significant impact on the long-term approach to cancer research. What is so significant about the drug is how it works.

Imlygic is an alive and infectious virus, and is the first of its kind to receive the FDA’s approval for treating cancer. It is expected to open a door in cancer research and could overcome many of the obstacles created by cancer recurrence following the three most common courses of treatment. There are more than a dozen clinical trials expected on other anti-cancer viruses.

Many in the cancer research industry acknowledge the idea of using a virus against cancer cells makes sense and has actually been explored for decades. When normal cells become cancerous, they replicate out of control and are no longer able to fight viruses, making them very vulnerable. A virus released into the system in a controlled way would target cancer cells and easily overpower them since they are weaker when it comes to virus fighting. Until now, no oncolytic viruses proved effective, but now Imlygic proves the theory that a virus could be a useful tool against cancer is with warrant.

Imlygic is a re-engineered version of the herpesvirus. Oncologists inject a massive dose of the virus directly into the skin cancer tumor where it bursts the cancer cells into bits. This action causes the immune system to take notice, creating a two-pronged effect. Not only is the virus attacking cancer cells directly, it is triggering the immune system to join into the fight against cancer in the body.

During the testing phase of Imlygic, researchers needed to prevent the virus from infecting healthy cells and causing cold sorts, while still getting viral and tumor proteins to alert the immune system. The task proved challenging, especially since researchers are not 100% clear on the role the immune system plays in the process, and have not yet determined if it will only attack virus-infected cells or if it also recognized cancer cells not affected by the virus injection. There is speculation it is the latter, but that theory has yet to be proven.

Imlygic Shows Pros and Cons

When it comes specifically to Imlygic and not just the general idea that viruses can kill cancer cells, researchers are a little less optimistic. The drug shows it is possible to make a theory work, but so far the results are less than stellar with survival time only increasing by a few months. However, the side effects, which are flu-like symptoms, are mild compared to what patients experience during chemotherapy.

When paired with other drugs called checkpoint inhibitors, used to stimulate the immune system, Imlygic appears more promising. In one small clinical trial, Imlygic used with checkpoint inhibitors produced a positive response in about half the subjects, leading researchers to speculate it will be the combination approach that will work best in the future.

Further studies are currently underway testing the effect various viruses, including smallpox, polio, and reovirus, have on cancer cells.

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