Can Viruses Be Used to Treat Lung Cancer?

By Pat Carragher - June 05, 2023

A group of researchers at Moffitt Cancer Center is hoping to determine if a genetically modified virus could be the next step in the fight against lung cancer. Oncolytic viruses have been engineered to infect cancer cells while sparing healthy tissue. The viral infection causes the cancer cells to break down and die, which releases proteins that trigger the immune system to target any remaining cancer cells.

Dr. Andreas Saltos, a medical oncologist in Moffitt’s Thoracic Oncology Program, presented results from a phase 1 clinical trial at the 2023 American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Annual Meeting. The study looked at the efficacy of MEM-288, an oncolytic virus that selectively kills cancer cells while revving up the immune system through the expression of two immune modulators. 

In the trial, patients who have multiple solid tumors undergo a biopsy followed by an injection with the virus directly into a tumor. Patients receive follow-up injections every three weeks, up to six treatments, as long as they’re tolerating the treatment. The goal of the trial is to determine if the treatment is safe and effective.

Of the 15 patients studied, researchers found that even the highest dose of the injection was safe. Patients typically experienced side effects similar to a flu shot, with no serious or adverse events reported.

Four patients have seen significant shrinkage in the tumors that were injected, while others have reported stabilization or shrinkage in noninjected tumors.

“We looked at biopsies and blood samples for patients on the study and see encouraging signs of an anti-tumor immune response being generated,” Saltos said. “We’ve demonstrated that this virus can powerfully shrink tumors and increase immune response even for patients with stage 4 tumors who had multiple prior treatments.”

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"We’ve demonstrated that this virus can powerfully shrink tumors and increase immune response even for patients with stage 4 tumors who had multiple prior treatments."

- Dr. Andreas Saltos, Thoracic Oncology Program

According to Saltos, the next step is to expand the study for lung cancer patients by combining the oncolytic virus with other immunotherapy, including checkpoint inhibitor therapy. He says it’s a bit early to make an assessment as to the long-term outcome for these patients, but there is hope that this will continue to be a promising therapy.

“We’re hopeful that in combining therapies in the second phase of the study, we’ll see more patients with tumor shrinkage,” Saltos said. “Most importantly, we’ll hopefully see more shrinkage of the noninjected tumors. That’s the big challenge. We want to prove that we can treat noninjected tumors, which would prove that the patient’s immune system is actually affecting their cancer globally, which I think will really make an improvement in their outcomes.”

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