11 November 2015

Prof Kevin Harrington - Using Viruses to Treat Cancer: Turning Poachers into Gamekeepers

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Synopsis

For many decades it has been known that both RNA and DNA viruses play a role in the causation of a variety of epithelial and non-epithelial cancers. Indeed, many of the commonest cancers in the world (eg hepatocellular cancer, cervical cancer, head and neck cancers) have a viral aetiology and prophylactic vaccination and active therapy have the potential to prevent huge numbers of people suffering these diagnoses.

More recently, however, we have begun to understand that some viruses have the remarkable biological property of growing preferentially in malignant cells and, in doing so, have the ability to exert anti-tumour effects. Such so-called “oncolytic viruses” are now being considered as potential targeted therapies for a range of different tumour types. There has been a huge increase in clinical trials involving oncolytic virotherapy and the regulatory steps involved in activating new studies are now relatively straightforward – accelerating the development of new viral treatments. Importantly, for a number of promising agents we have moved beyond initial safety and tolerability studies in to the realm of phase II/III studies that test the efficacy of treatment. Indeed, a recent landmark publication has shown for the first time that virus therapy can improve outcomes, compared to a control treatment, in patients with advanced melanomas. A great deal of data now points to using virus therapies alongside other treatments (such as immune checkpoint inhibitors) to boost the patient’s immune response against cancer.

In this talk, I will focus on recently completed or ongoing studies involving oncolytic virotherapy, with particular emphasis on herpes simplex virus, reovirus and coxsackie virus. Important laboratory data will also be discussed – especially in regard to how such knowledge can be used to inform the next generation of clinical studies. The future development of oncolytic immunotherapies will be reviewed, attempting to provide a forward-looking perspective on how we might be using these treatments in years to come.


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Additional Info

About the speaker

Professor Kevin Harrington specialises in developing new treatments using viruses that selectively destroy cancer cells. He is a Professor in Biological Cancer Therapies at The Institute of Cancer Research and a 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.

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".