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Poliovirus Therapy May Extend Lives of Advanced Brain-Cancer Patients

More than one-fifth of individuals treated with the genetically modified virus survived at least three years.

Jun 26, 2018
Ashley Yeager

ABOVE: Duke neurosurgeon Allan Friedman biopsies a glioblastoma tumor. SHAWN ROCCO/DUKE HEALTH

A genetically modified poliovirus given to patients with recurrent glioblastoma—an advanced form of brain cancer—appears to lengthen survival times, researchers reported today (June 26) in the New England Journal of Medicine. The team also presented the results today at the International Conference on Brain Tumor Research and Therapy in Norway.

“Glioblastoma remains a lethal and devastating disease, despite advances in surgical and radiation therapies, as well as new chemotherapy and targeted agents,” study coauthor Darell Bigner, emeritus director of the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke University, says in a statement. Doctors need different approaches to treat the disease, he notes. “With the survival rates in this early phase of the poliovirus therapy, we are encouraged and eager to continue with the additional studies that are already underway or planned.”

The prognosis for patients with glioblastoma tumors that return after treatment is typically 12 months to live. In the study, 21 percent of patients given the genetically modified poliovirus treatment survived three years. By comparison with historical medical records, only 4 percent of patients receiving standard treatments survive three years.

The Phase 1 clinical trial tested the experimental treatment on 61 patients with the goal of determining a safe dose of the modified virus. While 21 percent of treated patients experienced a benefit, including two patients who survived nearly six years, 69 percent of treated patients experienced side effects, Reuters reports. 

"Similar to many immunotherapies, it appears that some patients don't respond for one reason or another, but if they respond, they often become long-term survivors,” study coauthor Annick Desjardins, a Duke neurologist, says in the statement. “The big question is, how can we make sure that everybody responds?”

The study is “good science,” John de Groot, a neuro-oncologist at MD Anderson Cancer Center who was not involved in the study, tells The Washington Post, but he and others question whether the team should have used an actual control group rather than historical records. 

Desjardins tells The Post that using a traditional control group would have been unethical; patients not getting the virus treatment would have been subjected to sham procedures.

A Phase 2 study has already started, Reuters reports. Duke has licensed the technology to startup company Istari Oncology.

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