Reovirus: An Unlikely Ally in the Battle Against Brain Cancer

Scientists in the UK are hopeful that they have discovered a new tool in the battle against brain cancer. The surprising solution is a virus. Ten patients in the UK have received the new form of therapy. Keep reading to learn more or follow the story here at BBC.

The new virus-based therapy has been administered to ten patients so far. It utilizes a virus with symptoms similar to influenza. Symptoms are reportedly mild.

What makes the virus so valuable is its ability to cross the blood-brain barrier.

This feature allows the virus to bypass a tricky part of human biology, and activate part of the body’s own defense systems. Once enabled, the body’s defenses attack the tumor. That’s been the case in the studies so far. Encouraged by the promise of these results, experts at University of Leeds, and other similar centers, plan to treat more patients with this new reovirus technique.

The virus provides a therapy, not a cure. Even so, scientists believe the virus could be useful in addition to other more common treatments. It could be enough to provide patients with a few more weeks, months, or even years of life.

Research is still too young to determine the exact impact of the reovirus treatment. One expert, Dr. Colin Watts of Cancer Research UK, describes it as “an exciting first step along the journey towards clinical use.” It isn’t clear yet what impact the virus has on survivability, but it is clear that virus does its job. It is able to infiltrate the tumor and activate the body’s immune response. Further clinical trials will reveal just how effective a treatment it is.

One advantage the virus has over other treatments is it can be injected intravenously.

This lowers risk and makes the treatment more comfortable for patients. Another advantage of the treatment is that reovirus only seems interested in cancer cells. It has thus far ignored healthy cells. Patients report mild flu-like symptoms but that’s all.

The first trial of the reovirus treatment included nine patients. Each had rapidly growing gliomas or advanced cancers spreading to the brain from other locations. The cancers had reappeared even after surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy. Doctors were usure the virus would be able to move form the blood to the brain.

The virus, however, successfully crossed the blood-brain barrier and activiated the body’s immune system. This enabled the immune system to see and attack the cancer cells.

“Our immune systems aren’t very good at ‘seeing’ cancers,” explains Professor Alan Melcher, co-author of the study.

He explains that cancer cells have a shocking resemblance to our natural body cells. Cancer cells are also talented at lying to the immune system, convincing it to look away. The immune system is, however, very aware of viruses. That’s what makes the reovirus so effective. It allows the body to see cancers cells as affected by virus.

Scientists are eager to try out a full course of treatment. Susan short, professor of clinical oncology at University of Leeds, has begun treating one patient with the new therapy.

The patient in question is a man with aggressive glioblastoma. He is receiving multiple doses of the new virus based treatment alongside traditional measures. It is still too early to tell the full effect of the treatment. Professor Short describes the treatment as a “paradigm change.” She is hopeful that it might lead to a new therapy with a large scale impact but there is no sure way to tell yet.

Almost 11,000 cases of primary brain cancer are diagnosed in the UK each year. Just 14% of them survive for more then 10 years after diagnosis. In a world where developments are often few and far between, the reovirus is poised to be a real game changer even if it can give humanity just a slight edge.


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