“We’ll be looking for even more progress in this area,” Lutzky said. “I don’t think I’ve been so hopeful as an oncologist in a long time.”
Across town another promising immunotherapy is being studied at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine. At the lab of Dr. Glen Barber, professor and chair of the Cell Biology Department, scientists are researching how a therapeutic virus known as vesicular stomatitis virus, or VSV, is able to destroy cancer cells while leaving normal healthy cells intact.
“All cancer cells are extraordinarily sensitive to viruses,” Barber said. “They have some kind of defect in that respect.”
Using the knowledge that cancers are susceptible to virus replication and thus are easily killed after an infection, Barber and his team tested it first on animal cells. Result? Normal cells didn’t allow replication of the VSV, but cancer cells actually exploded and died as a result.
“The virus,” Barber explained, “replicates like a balloon and pops the cancer cell.”
In the process of eliminating the virus infection “the body responds by eating the virus-infected cells. It cleans up and attacks the cancer cells,” he added.
Tested initially in mice, rats and rhesus monkeys, VSV is now in Phase I trials for the treatment of liver cancer at UM, in conjunction with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and Scottsdale, Ariz. This means scientists are using “very low doses, very conservative treatment” to determine both efficacy and lack of toxicity. Patients also receive an immune stimulatory gene, interferon beta, within the virus.
While encouraged by the progress of the experiment, Barber warns that the public shouldn’t expect an overnight cure. “It’s a tremendously complicated process and we have so much to unravel,” said Barber, who is also associate director of Basic Research at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. “There’s a lot of work going on and it takes time.”