A cold virus has been found to shrink cancerous skin tumours by almost half in early research that could signal a new era in non-surgical treatment.
When prescribed alongside existing immunotherapy drugs, a live common cold virus was seen to infect and destroy cancer cells during a phase one study led by New York University’s Langone Health medical centre.
A combination of pembrolizumab, a drug known as Keytruda, and an injection of the coxsackievirus shrank melanoma tumours in 47 per cent of men and women with advanced skin cancer.
They were given the therapy every few weeks for at least two years, and the results recorded at the university’s Perlmutter Cancer Centre.
Immunotherapy drugs are usually effective in reducing the size of tumours in just over a third of patients.
The breakthrough offers hope to those with cancer who are unable to have tumours surgically removed.
“Our goal is to determine if the virus turns the tumour microenvironment from ‘friendly’ to one that is ‘unfriendly’, making the cancer cells more vulnerable to pembrolizumab,” said Dr Janice Mehnert, a professor at NYU Grossman School of Medicine and associate director of clinical research at the centre.
“Our initial study results are very promising and show that this oncolytic virus injection, when combined with existing immunotherapy, is not only safe but has the potential to work better against melanoma than immunotherapy alone.”
Experts have known that viruses can reduce cancerous growths since the 1800s, when doctors reported cancer patients whose tumours shrank after a bout of measles or herpes.
Advances in genetic engineering have since allowed scientists to explore new methods of training viruses to target specific molecules within cancerous cells, making them easier to infect and then kill.
Researchers in the NYU study recorded minimal side effects in those taking part, such as skin rashes and fatigue that would usually be associated with taking pembrolizumab alone.
However, 13 patients (36 per cent) did experience more serious immune reactions in their liver, stomach or lungs – which is similar to reactions reported in some patients who are taking immunotherapy drugs.
Of those given the combination of pembrolizumab and an injection of the experimental coxsackievirus drug (V937), 22 per cent experienced complete remission, with no remaining signs of cancer.
The next phase of clinical trials will involve patients with melanoma, the most serious skin cancer that has become widespread.
It will also be tested in patients whose tumours could be shrunk by the drug combination to enable surgeons to remove them more easily.
Skin cancer represents one of the most common malignancies in men in the UAE, with a prevalence rate of about 14.5 per cent.
Melanoma is the most aggressive form of skin cancer and is usually spotted on the skin in sun-exposed areas.
According to the World Health Organisation, between two and three million non-melanoma skin cancers and 132,000 melanoma skin cancers occur globally each year.