22 March 2010 Society HEALTH: CANCER

Viral Arsenal

A targeted virus offers hope against cancer
Viral Arsenal
Saptarishi Biswas
Viral Arsenal

Aim & Shoot

  • ‘Oncolysis’ means destruction of a cancerous cell. Oncolytic virus therapy, or OVT, uses a specially designed virus to target and kill cancer cells.
  • The virus being used for OVT is the Vaccina virus, modified to target cancer cells, which it attacks and causes to explode or disintegrate
  • Unlike chemotherapy or radiation therapy, OVT has no side-effects like nausea, diarrhoea and hair loss


A cutting-edge therapy for cancer that uses an artificial virus to zero in on cancerous cells and cause them to disintegrate will be tested in India for the first time. Human trials for oncolytic virus therapy (OVT) are scheduled to begin in May.

A genetically manufactured virus is administered intravenously and once it enters the body, it seeks out tumours or cancerous lesions, leaving normal cells alone. Early trials in the UK have proved promising; trials in the US and in India will begin simultaneously. If these trials are successful, OVT could become standard treatment for cancers of all kinds.

Simultaneous trials will begin at the Artemis Health Institute in Gurgaon and the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre in New York, where one patient each will be administered a single dose and monitored for four to six weeks for improvement and side-effects. Only after the institutions are done with one patient will the procedure be tried on another. The Gurgaon hospital will conduct the trial on 50 patients, who will not have to pay for it.

“We are very confident the therapy will work. Early trials (conducted in England) have been fairly successful,” says Dr Kushagra Kataria, CEO, Artemis Health Institute. “This is a biological treatment and does not affect normal cells. Patients will not have to suffer from nausea, hair loss, diarrhoea and other symptoms that usually accompany chemotherapy and radiotherapy.”

Oncolytic viruses are live viruses that selectively target the highly divisive cancer cells that form into tumours. The virus chosen for these trials is called Vaccina, genetically created by Genelux, a biomedical firm. The same virus is also used for small pox vaccines. For cancer treatment, of course, it is programmed differently. In early trials, just one dose has resulted in complete cures. Experts say that once it is declared a success, the therapy will become cheap and affordable.

Many cancer hospitals are keen to use the therapy, but are waiting for the trials to be completed. Dr V.R. Pai, a medical oncologist at the Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai, says, “This is definitely worth trying, and if successful, we will definitely start it at our hospital too. That it is a biological cure and cuts down on side-effects and increases the response rate can in itself be considered a breakthrough.”

In tests on animals, they were injected with a human tumour and then treated with the virus. It was noted that the procedure cured all types of cancer and there were no side-effects.

A connection between cancer and viruses has long been theorised, and case reports of cancer regression after immunisation or infection with an unrelated virus appeared at the beginning of the 20th century.

In India, early Phase 1 human trials are not permitted; late Phase 1 and early Phase 2 trials are. Since this is still considered a scientific experiment, many ethical guidelines will be followed.

“We are not opposed to human trials if all ethics and guidelines are followed strictly. However, this is intellectual scientific experimentation at the same time so we have to be very careful,” says a health ministry official. “Also, once the treatment is a success in one or two centres, it will be allowed at other hospitals.” Trials in India will target patients with cervical, head, neck and lung cancer. While lung cancer is the No. 1 cancer killer in the world, neck and cervical cancer are the more prevalent forms of the disease in India.

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