After qualifying as a doctor, Professor Kevin Harrington started his first job in oncology, and knew straight away that this was where he was supposed to be. Head and neck cancers, which include tumours of the mouth, throat and voice box, grabbed his interest while he was a PhD student. “These cancers represent a diverse group of diseases with varied challenges for treatment and generally poor survival rates” Professor Harrington explains. “Head and neck cancers are perceived as one of the trickier cancers to treat, as delivering radiation to the affected area can be technically very challenging. But unlike many other cancers, head and neck cancers can be cured by radiotherapy; it’s just a question of delivering the radiotherapy effectively to the area.”
Professor Kevin Harrington joined the ICR in 2001, and is now professor in biological cancer therapies at the ICR, and an honorary consultant clinical oncologist at The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust. He has two areas of research interest: oncolytic virotherapy (the use of genetically modified viruses as selective cancer therapeutics) and the discovery and development of new drugs that enhance the radiation response in cancer cells.
It was during his PhD years that his interest in oncolytic virotherapy began. Here he used liposomes to target radiosensitisers - drugs that make tumour cells more sensitive to radiation therapy – directly to the tumour site. “The problem with using liposomes was that once the drug got there, we couldn’t do much else with it. It was by chance that the laboratory next door to me was working on gene therapy, and my colleague who was leading the group offered me a postdoctoral position in his new group at the Mayo Clinic where we looked into using viruses as a delivery system for therapeutic genes, some of which were able to enhance the effects of radiotherapy.”
Now, Professor Harrington is genetically altering a number of viruses so that they selectively destroy cancer cells. “Some viruses have naturally evolved to grow preferentially in cancer cells because of the cells’ specific genetic defects, but we can genetically modify others to grow selectively in cancer cells,” he reveals. “Not only do these modified viruses kill cancer cells directly, but they also trigger an immune response, just like a vaccine would, that helps eliminate residual cancer cells. Even more interestingly, our early stage research shows that some of these modified viruses also enhance the cytotoxicity of standard anticancer treatments by making cancer cells more sensitive to drugs or radiation, while the standard treatments may also favourably alter the effect of some viruses on cancer cells.”