Professor Kevin Harrington specialises in developing new treatments using viruses that selectively destroy cancer cells. He is a Reader in Biological Cancer Therapies at The Institute of Cancer Research and an Honorary Consultant Clinical Oncologist at The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust.
Professor Harrington studied medicine at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London and began focusing on head and neck cancer while a PhD student at Hammersmith Hospital. He completed post doctoral research in molecular medicine at the Mayo Clinic, Minnesota, before joining the ICR in 2001 as Targeted Therapy Team Leader within the Section of Cell and Molecular Biology.
He is currently working with a range of viruses (reovirus, herpes simplex virus, vaccinia virus) that are able to grow in - and kill - cancerous, but not normal, cells. Some of these viruses have naturally evolved to grow preferentially in cancer cells because of the cells’ specific genetic defects; others have been genetically engineered to grow selectively in cancer cells. Professor Harrington hopes new treatments using these viruses will improve patients’ cure rates and have fewer side-effects compared to current therapies.
He says his specialisation area of head and neck cancers is in particular need of extensive further research as it represents a diverse group of diseases with varied challenges for treatment and generally poor survival rates. “There is a real need to improve treatment options,” Professor Harrington says.
Much of Professor Harrington’s laboratory work is immediately translated into clinical trials at The Royal Marsden, most often in patients with head and neck cancers and melanomas. Professor Harrington says the ICR’s partnership with The Royal Marsden allows him to conduct innovative laboratory research and apply it in the clinical setting, achieving “real patient benefit”.
The virus therapies developed are generally given in combination with standard anticancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Professor Harrington’s research has shown that some viruses can make cancer cells more sensitive to radiation; while the radiation may also favourably alter the effect of some viruses on cancer cells.
One promising treatment is reovirus (a tumour-specific virus) which Phase I and II trials demonstrated was targeting tumours after intravenous injection. In 2009, the Federal Drug Administration approved a Phase III trial of this virus which is currently recruiting patients in many centres around the world. “One of the greatest challenges we have faced is working out how to inject these viruses into patients so they are able to reach the tumours and kill them efficiently, before being inactivated by the immune system,” Professor Harrington says.
A second avenue of research involves a genetically-modified herpes simplex virus (cold sore virus) given by direct injection into the tumour. As well as killing tumour cells, this modified virus has the added benefit of expressing a protein that stimulates the immune system. A number of trials are underway involving this virus in combination with other treatments for patients with several cancer types including breast and head and neck cancers and malignant melanomas.
Professor Harrington is a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and a Fellow of the Royal College of Radiologists.
In his infrequent spare time, he enjoys gardening, playing and watching football and reading.