In the right hands, however, viruses can actually be beneficial. One biopharmaceutical company is developing a virus-based therapy that may one day help treat lung cancer, including cases caused by asbestos exposure.
How can viruses be helpful?
The fact that viruses can wreak havoc on the body has inspired several scientists to conduct experiments to see if they can use them to kill diseased tissues. The National Cancer Institute describes these oncolytic viruses as targeting cancer cells, and not healthy ones. This may either kill the malignancy directly, or make tumors more vulnerable to radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
Oncolytic viruses may exist naturally, but biopharmaceutical companies such as Oncolytics Biotech are engineering their own viruses in the lab.
Phase 2 clinical trial shows promise
Oncolytics Biotech has been developing an oncolytic virus under the name Reolysin, which is a modified form of the human reovirus. So far, the company has explored the use of Reolysin for treating head and neck cancers.
In order to determine the effects of Reolysin on lung cancer, the researchers conducted a Phase 2 trial that included 20 patients who had squamous cell carcinoma of the lung. All study participants underwent six treatment cycles of the chemotherapy drugs carboplatin and paclitaxel, which were administered in combination with intravenous treatments of Reolysin.
Results showed that 19 patients experienced shrinkages in their tumors.
“It’s exciting to have 95 percent of patients in this study exhibit tumor shrinkage and these results further suggest that Reolysin may have potential use in neoadjuvant (pre-surgical) settings,” Brad Thompson, president and CEO of Oncolytics Biotech, said in a statement. “Based on these findings we intend to continue to look at Reolysin as a treatment for cancers of the lung and cancers that metastasize to the lung.”
The company is continuing to enroll patients for further studies of Reolysin.
Incidence of asbestos-induced lung cancer will increase
The NCI describes squamous cell carcinoma of the lung as a form of non-small cell lung cancer. It affects a group of cells that are thin, flat and resemble fish scales. Symptoms of this disease include chest pain, a cough that grows worse over time, wheezing, loss of appetite, unexplained weight loss, tiredness, problems swallowing, difficulty breathing or hoarseness.
Experts estimate that more than 228,000 new cases of lung cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2013. Eighty-four percent of these will be non-small cell lung cancer, and 25 percent of all lung cancer cases will be squamous cell carcinoma.
Although the developed world has done much to curb the use of asbestos, diseases related to this toxic material can take years to develop. For this reason, the incidence of conditions such as lung cancer and malignant mesothelioma will probably continue to increase for the next 10 years or so, as estimated by the Environmental Working Group. The organization asserts that, currently, asbestos-induced lung cancer is responsible for 4,800 deaths in the U.S. every year.
If the researchers from Oncolytics Biotech are successful in bringing Reolysin to market, countless lung cancer patients may benefit.