Fighting cancer with polio

by Karen on April 6, 2015

Stephanie Lipscomb, from CBS 60 Minutes "Killing Cancer." ©CBS News

Stephanie Lipscomb, from CBS 60 Minutes “Killing Cancer.” ©CBS News

My husband was flipping through TV channels about a week ago when we heard the voice of CBS 60 Minutes’ Scott Pelley mention “a discovery for the 21st century.”

Onscreen, in blood red and white letters against a black backdrop, were the words “Killing Cancer,” an attention-grabbing graphic that ordinarily would have made me insist we change the channel. I don’t like cancer stories with my relaxed Sunday night suppers. There’s something about the (real or imagined) tone of alarm, mixed with pity and manufactured hope, that gives me indigestion. Jim knows that.

But something about this particular story made us both stop and listen. I’m glad we did.

According to the report, which you can watch here, Duke University researchers are testing a new medical treatment using a modified form of the poliovirus to kill cancer. Yes, that poliovirus. The one that once crippled children.

In an early phase clinical trial, doctors have been infecting deadly brain tumors called glioblastomas with the modified poliovirus and then relying on the immune system to attack the polio and, with it, the glioblastoma.

The first human patient in the study was Stephanie Lipscomb, a 20-year-old nursing student who looks the tiniest bit like Princess Kate. The young woman, who initially had a tumor the size of a tennis ball, had already been through surgery, radiation and chemotherapy when the cancer returned.

“I had nothing to lose,” she said, knowing that glioblastoma can double in size every two weeks. Today, almost three years after a single treatment with the modified poliovirus, she is cancer-free.

Not all of the outcomes have been positive, partly because Phase I studies are designed to discover the correct dose of a new drug. But, Dr. Henry Friedman, deputy director of Duke’s Brain Tumor Center is confident enough to say, “This, to me, is the most promising therapy I’ve seen in my career, period.”

Dr. Matthias Gromeier, the molecular biologist who developed the treatment, has been working on it for 25 years. He’s now testing the poliovirus immunotherapy treatment on lung, breast, colorectal, prostate, pancreatic, liver and renal cancers.

Wow. Aren’t you glad there are folks out there smart enough to come up with these innovative ideas?

I vaguely recall one of the chemotherapy drugs I once received being derived from a tree found in rainforests. And the drug I recently began taking, which I alluded to in Breakthroughs and Blessings, actually attacks an enzyme involved in DNA repair. Seems counterintuitive, right? It was approved by the FDA in December under an accelerated approval program for drugs that “show promise against a serious disease.”

New research in the fight against cancer is beginning almost every day. And current research – some decades in the making – is wrapping up. It makes you wonder. What other potential miracle drugs – or dare I say cures – might be just around the corner?



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