Viruses come in many shapes and sizes. Sadly, we are now all too familiar with how dangerous they can be. Some, like the new coronavirus can cause large-scale epidemics – others can be much milder, like the common cold or seasonal flu. However, the one thing all viruses have in common is their ability to infiltrate cells and kill them from the inside out. Here at The Institute of Cancer Research, scientists are using this property of viruses for good – by making them infect and kill cancer cells.
The ICR’s research on viral immunotherapy is set to be highlighted on prime time television this evening, as part of The One Show – the BBC’s flagship news magazine programme.
Last year, some of my colleagues in the ICR Media Relations team and I accompanied the medical doctor and broadcaster Dr Kevin Fong, when he visited the Translational Immunotherapy and Targeted Therapy labs at the ICR. Kevin came to find out how viruses can help in the fight against cancer. He learned about each team’s work on cancer-killing viruses and the development of the viral immunotherapy, talimogene laherparepvec, or T-VEC.
The programme is now set to air in a time when the world has been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused many of our labs to temporarily close. Our world-leading work on harnessing viruses in the fight against cancer is the kind of research we cannot wait to get back to as we get our laboratories fully up and running again.
We've lost many vital research hours to the coronavirus crisis but the need for our work continues to grow. Please help us kick-start our research to make up for lost time in discovering smarter, kinder and more effective cancer treatments, and to ensure cancer patients don't get left behind.
One-two punch against cancer
The film crew first visited the specialist virus lab where Kevin Fong interviewed Professor Alan Melcher about his work on oncolytic reovirus, a naturally occurring virus that causes mild cold and tummy bug symptoms in children.
Reovirus is one of a range of virus families that are being explored for their ability to attack cancer, and some of Professor Melcher’s work focuses on exploring whether a particular virus is suitable for use in a particular cancer type. Some oncolytic viruses are injected directly into the tumour, he explained, and others are delivered into the bloodstream.
Oncolytic viruses selectively infect cancer cells while leaving healthy cells alone. They deliver a one-two punch against cancer. Firstly, the virus kills cancer cells directly by infecting them and multiplying until the cancer cells bursts from the inside out. But importantly, the infection also helps flag cancer cells – which are normally good at hiding from the body’s own defences – to the immune system, which can then join the fight.
Watching cancer-killing viruses up close
To show the lab work involved in studying the effects of viral immunotherapy in more detail, the BBC crew filmed Gabby Baker, Scientific Officer in the Translational Immunotherapy team. By looking through a microscope, she showed Kevin how tumour cells that have been infected with a cancer-killing virus stimulate phagocytosis, the process by which the cell is engulfed or ‘eaten up’ by an immune cell.
Phagocytosis is essential for flagging up tumour ‘signposts’ to T cells, key players in attracting the immune system to then selectively attack cancer cells. Infecting tumour cells with oncolytic viruses can also stimulate other lines of attack involving different immune cells, such as natural killer cells.
“I really enjoyed being part of the filming for The One Show. It was especially fun speaking to Dr Kevin Fong – he was enthusiastic and had a very good understanding of the subject, which made it easier for me to speak about my experiments so a wider audience could understand it. It’s always nice to have the opportunity to explain your work to the general public and to represent the ICR, particularly as a female researcher.”
World’s first approved oncolytic immunotherapy
Next, the film crew visited Professor Kevin Harrington in his Targeted Therapy lab, to learn about the basic principles of using viruses to treat cancer and to find out more about the cancer-killing virus therapy, T-VEC.
T-VEC is based on a modified version of the herpes simplex virus, which causes cold sores. It works in a similar way to oncolytic reovirus, with the difference that it is genetically engineered to selectively infect cancer cells and stimulate an immune response.
Professor Harrington led a clinical trial that was the first to definitively show that viral immunotherapy can have benefits for patients with cancer. At the ICR and The Royal Marsden, Professor Harrington led the UK arms for the phase I, II and III clinical trials of T-VEC.
It was the world’s first oncolytic immunotherapy to be approved for use in the clinic, and it was made available on the NHS for advanced skin cancer in 2016. It is in clinical trials for other forms of cancer and in combination with other immunotherapy treatments.
The One Show also spoke with one of Professor Harrington’s patients, Kate. She benefited from T-VEC together with the immunotherapy drug, pembrolizumab, as part of one of the trials led at the ICR and The Royal Marsden.
Kick-starting the ICR
When the BBC came into the ICR to film last year, little did we all know how another virus would soon change everything. Now our scientists are back in their labs, cancer-killing viruses are one way we are continuing to make the discoveries to defeat cancer.
Professor Alan Melcher added: “The coronavirus pandemic has been challenging for us all, and we launched a Kick-start appeal to get us off to the best possible start as we reopened our labs. It is an encouraging boost to see our research, into how viruses could help us beat cancer, featured on The One Show.”
Tune into BBC One on Monday 19 October at 7pm to watch the ICR’s viral immunotherapy research on The One Show or catch up afterwards on BBC iPlayer.
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