New Strategy Found for Deadly Childhood Cancer

Doctors inject brain tumors with a virus to stimulate an immune system response
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Apr 18, 2021 9:31 AM CDT
Novel Treatment Offers Hope for Children With Brain Tumors
This combination of microscope images provided by the University of Alabama shows immune cells within in the brain tumor of a child, before and after a treatment that involves using viruses to spur an immune system response to the cancerous cells. The image at right shows an increase in activated immune...   (UAB via AP)

For decades, a deadly type of childhood cancer has eluded science’s best tools. Now doctors have made progress with an unusual treatment: Dripping millions of copies of a virus directly into kids’ brains to infect their tumors and spur an immune system attack, per the AP. A dozen children treated this way lived more than twice as long as similar patients have in the past, doctors report in the New England Journal of Medicine. Although most of them eventually died of their disease, four are alive and well several years after treatment—something virtually unheard of in this situation. "This is the first step, a critical step," said lead author Dr. Gregory Friedman, a childhood cancer specialist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "Our goal is to improve on this," possibly by trying it when patients are first diagnosed or by combining it with other therapies.

The study involved gliomas, which account for 8% to 10% of childhood brain tumors. They're usually treated with surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation but they often recur. Once they do, survival averages just under six months. In such cases, the immune system has lost the ability to recognize and attack the cancer, so scientists have been seeking ways to make the tumor a fresh target. They turned to the herpes virus, which spurs a strong immune system response. A Philadelphia company called Treovir developed a treatment by modifying the virus so it would infect only cancer cells, and through tiny tubes inserted in the tumors, doctors gave the virus to 12 patients ages 7 to 18. Eleven showed evidence in imaging tests or tissue samples that the treatment was working. Median survival was just over a year, more than double what’s been seen in the past. As of June—the cutoff for analyzing results—four were still alive at least 18 months after treatment.

(Read more medical study stories.)

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