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Scientists genetically reengineered the polio virus to treat brain cancer, and it’s working

Updated Jun 27th, 2018 9:19AM EDT
brain cancer new treatment
Image: Neil Conway

Scientists are trying anything and everything in the fight against cancer, and an unusual new potential treatment option has come from a very unlikely source: polio. As NPR reports, doctors have genetically reengineered the polio virus in an attempt to battle a deadly form of brain cancer, and the revolutionary new treatment seems to be showing positive results.

Glioblastoma is an incredibly dire form of brain cancer, as the disease tends to shrug off many forms of cancer treatment. Those who are diagnosed with glioblastoma often don’t see much hope in beating it, or even delaying the cancer’s progress. Now, a tweaked version of the polio virus has shown to extend the lives of those with the disease, and it could lead to a new treatment option.

The researchers decided to experiment with the polio virus due to its ability to invade cells in the nervous system. The doctors modified the virus to stop it from actually creating the symptoms associated with polio, and then infused it into the brain tumor. There, the virus infected and killed cancer cells, and the researchers believe it may have also prompted the immune systems of the patients to attack the cancer as well. The testing of the new treatment was described in a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Doctors are excited about what they’re seeing, but they’re also urging caution. The treatment isn’t a cure, and it has only been effective in a little over one-fifth of the glioblastoma patients who have been treated with it, extending survival times significantly. Still, that’s a huge step forward for this particularly deadly form of cancer.

“We have to be careful,” Annick Desjardins, a neuro-oncologist who is involved in the study, explains. “But we have long-term survivors. We are seeing something we don’t normally see with patients with glioblastoma.”

In the long-term study, 21 percent of the patients who were treated with the modified virus had survived after three years. That’s compared to just four percent in a historical comparison group. Three patients have survived more than five years, with one already passing the six year mark. Those kinds of survival times are basically unheard of when it comes to glioblastoma, and while the vast majority didn’t see a huge improvement in survival times, the study is still incredibly promising, and could eventually yield a viable treatment for the disease.