2015 Game Changing Year in Treatment
Dark humor for a dark topic—cancer. Surgery, radiation and chemo have their victories, but survival time lines aren’t much different than years back. The 1950 cancer mortality rate of 191 deaths per hundred thousand is barely chastened, down less than three percent by last year.
2015 saw long awaited advances in fundamental science translate into promising new therapy. In a departure from the big three of cancer treatment, a new method uses a modified virus to wake up the patient’s own defenses.
Glioblastoma is characterized by brain and spinal masses. Tumors the size of baseballs and larger are reported. This is the feared, deadly brain cancer with very poor survival rates. Only 10% make three years, and rapid death is more usual—short as nine months, fifteen average.
Surgery, radiation and chemo are still standard against Gliobastoma, but modified Polio virus introduces a less invasive, potentially more effective treatment. Fighting malignancy with a virus isn’t new. Even back in the 1800s, doctors occasionally recorded spontaneous cancer cures after viral infections. It would be years before science and lab technique were even to the observed opportunity.
Heredity became a science in the 1860s, with Nucleic acid isolated in 1902. It took fifty more years to understand the structure of nucleotides – the building blocks of DNA represented by letters A,T,C and G. Jump fifty years again to 2001 and we’d cataloged the entire human genome. 2012 saw the Encode Project overturn an erroneous belief 98 percent of genes were ‘junk DNA.’ Turns out they exert fine control over the tiny minority of more familiar protein coding genes. We’re in process to work out each function.
The lab skill needed to swap a dangerous slice of Polio for common cold virus – gene splicing – was pioneered in 1973. This cut and paste neuters the bug’s ability to reproduce in normal human brain tissue.
Modified Polio virus still retains its specific attraction to cancer cells
Scientists recognized this trait 25 years back, but Polio’s bad rep added layers of procedure and safeguards to an already cumbersome process. That it finally got to human trials speaks volumes for the efforts of researcher Dr. Matthias Grohmeier, credited with discovering the virus’s binding affinity to tumor cells those many years back.
The Glioblastoma/Polio treatment dosage and drug delivery are still being evaluated. Excitement came when 11 of 22 study participants saw growths shrink. Two patient’s had cancers fade to disappear completely. The therapy works like this: tiny amounts of the modified Polio are dripped through a small hole in the skull directly into the tumor. Dosage is key, with smaller amounts more effective than larger which over stimulate the immune system.
While it takes five disease free years to consider outcomes complete remission, this large departure from older regimens is exciting in itself, and offers clues for battling many other cancers. Doctors believe the underlying success behind modified polio comes when the patients own immune system wakes to kill malignant cells. Cancer often hides from the host body by turning off immune responses that would otherwise rid damaged genetic tissue. In fact, many believe we’re constantly defeating tiny cancers that only come to light if mutation successfully mutes defenses. The altered polio uncloaks the invader.
Since treatment relies on a patient’s own ability to fight, overall health, diet, length of illness, even the will to win all come into play. Study patients typically exhaust accepted therapies before admission to experimental protocols and are often physically and psychologically ravaged by rather brutal present regimens. It will be some time before the polio treatment takes first crack at afflicted individuals.
Another study involving modified herpes virus exhibits great promise fighting melanoma – an aggressive skin cancer known for spreading to major organs. Like altered polio, the herpes treatment looks able to fight yet other cancers. Taken together, these two examples of virus stimulated immune response offer real hope after years of slow progress fighting the big “C.”
Look to 2016 for even greater advances as novel, targeted therapies including wasp venom, DNA origami and nanobots bring the fight to cancer in ever more selective treatment. Science now predicts the first person to reach 1000 birthdays is already alive. As we near that aim, defeating the spectrum of disease summarized as cancer finally moves from distant dream to practical goal.