New medical study uses polio to fight terminal brain cancer

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby


The Food and Drug Administration has given so-called “breakthrough” status to a treatment that uses the once-feared polio virus to target aggressive forms of brain cancer, in the hope of speeding it to market.

The therapy, developed at Duke University, hopes to use the virus’ debilitating properties to help fight cancer instead of harming its host, CBS News reported Thursday.

The experimental treatment was the brainchild of molecular biologist Matthias Gromeier. By removing a certain genetic sequence and replacing it with material from the common cold virus, the polio would not be able to cause the incapacitating symptoms that once afflicted President Franklin D. Roosevelt and numerous others because it would be unable to reproduce in normal cells.

However, the altered version of polio could still reproduce in cancer cells—therefore making the cancer susceptible to Lipscomb’s and other patients’ immune systems.

“All human cancers … develop a shield of protective measures that make them invisible to this immune system,” Gromeier told CBS. “By infecting the tumor, we are actually removing this protective shield and enabling the immune system to attack.”

While the altered polio virus initiates the fight against the cancer cells, its ability to alert the immune system to the trouble is what often finishes off the virus, the network reported.

A woman once afflicted with an aggressive form of brain cancer who used the treatment saw her virus all but disappear three years after she became the first volunteer in the study.

As a 20-year-old student in 2011, Stephanie Lipscomb was diagnosed as having a glioblastoma, a type of malignant tumor, in her brain, the network reported.

She had been complaining of headaches prior to the diagnosis. Her doctor told her the tumor had grown to the size of a tennis ball and that she only had a few months to live.

Lipscomb then had 98 percent of the cancerous tumor removed. But by 2012, the cancer had returned.

With no other treatment options available, Lupscomb decided to volunteer for Duke’s experiment. For 21 months after Lipscomb began participating, her glioblastoma shrank until it was gone.

In August 2014, three years after her initial diagnosis, an MRI showed no active cancer cells in Lipscomb’s body.