How Viruses Could Cure Cancer and Save Lives

Nathanial Scharping in Discover:

Sitting in an isolated room at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Frank Nielsen steeled himself for the first injection. Doctors were about to take a needle filled with herpes simplex virus, the strain responsible for cold sores, and plunge it directly into his scalp. If all went well, it would likely save his life. Nielsen was a cancer survivor and, once again, a cancer patient. His melanoma, which had responded to conventional treatments the first time around, had returned with a frightening aggressiveness. Within weeks, a lump on his scalp had swelled into an ugly mass. Unlike the first time, options like surgery weren’t viable — it was growing too quickly.

As a last resort, his doctors turned to a cutting-edge drug known as T-VEC, approved in 2015 in the U.S. But the treatment, part of a promising field of cancer care known as immunotherapy, doesn’t sound much like a drug at all. T-VEC consists of a genetically modified virus that acts as both soldier and scout within the body, attacking tumor cells directly and calling in reinforcements from the immune system. Nielsen’s doctors hoped it would team up with the immunotherapy drug Keytruda, which enables the immune system to recognize and destroy tumor cells, to bring his cancer under control.

For nearly a year, Nielsen, a mechanical engineer in central Massachusetts, traveled to Boston every three weeks to have the drug injected into the tumors on his scalp. He would come home with his head swaddled in bloody bandages, aching after as many as 70 separate injections in a single session. There, he would prepare himself for the inevitable fever, nausea and vomiting, as his body reacted to the sudden presence of a live virus.

But the grueling regimen paid off. After the fifth round of treatment, Nielsen says, he began to see a visible change in the lumps on his scalp.

More here.