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My Brain Tumor Has a Virus! And It’s a Good Thing

Viruses , detailed 3d illustration

Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center/NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital are testing an exciting new way to treat brain tumors: giving them a virus.

Dr. Adam Sonabend from The Brain Tumor Center is the principal investigator for Columbia University’s portion of a clinical trial studying a new treatment for high grade gliomas, a type of brain cancer, that uses a virus to turn the tumor against itself.

The first three clinical trials of the virus, called Toca 511, showed that development should continue since it had a favorable safety profile in recurrent high grade glioma patients. Now Dr. Sonabend and his co-researcher, neuro-oncologist Dr. Fabio Iwamoto, are taking part in a phase II/III trial of this virus at Columbia, to confirm the early results and see if this new investigational therapy helps increase the survival of patients with recurrent malignant brain tumors.

Along with Dr. Sonabend, Columbia neurosurgeons Dr. Jeffrey Bruce, Dr. Michael Sisti, Dr. Guy McKhann and Dr. Sameer Sheth all have patients taking part in the trial. If that sounds like a lot of patients, you’re right—of the 67 sites involved in the study, Columbia is one of the top sites for patient enrollment in the trial.

Malignant (cancerous) glioma brain tumors are fast-growing and difficult to treat. They invade healthy brain tissue, and they often have the ability to suppress the body’s immune system so that the tumor can grow unchecked. Surgery is usually necessary to remove these tumors, but sometimes the location and growth of the tumor can make it difficult or impossible to remove the whole thing. Despite an aggressive resection (removal), these tumors are likely to re-grow.

In other words, these tumors are fast, powerful and sneaky, and conventional treatment, including surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, is usually not enough to get rid of them. The Toca 511 virus is an experimental therapy that is designed to address this problem.

The innovative treatment used in this phase II/III trial works like this: First the virus is injected into the walls of the patient’s brain tumor cavity during surgery. Toca 511 is a special type of virus in that it targets and grows in dividing cells with immune defects, such as cancer cells. It spreads throughout the tumor, but leaves the healthy brain tissue unharmed.

Although it’s a virus, Toca 511 doesn’t actually make the tumor “sick.” As it spreads throughout the tumor, it carries an enzyme that can convert an innocuous experimental drug that Dr. Iwamoto prescribes, called Toca FC, into a highly potent anti-cancer drug, which kills the tumor from the inside out.

That’s right. The combination of the virus and the oral medication actually creates a cancer-killing drug, called 5-FU, right inside the tumor.

Not only can this anti-cancer drug, 5-FU, kill cancer on the spot, it can also attack the mechanisms the tumor uses to keep the body’s immune system from attacking the tumor. Now the cancer can be attacked by both the drug and the body’s normal immune defenses.

We are proud to be a part of this potentially groundbreaking trial. If the study goes well, we could be one step closer to having a practical virus to fight brain cancer, meaning your brain tumor could have a virus—and that would be a good thing!

Learn more about Dr. Sonabend on his bio page here.
Learn more about Dr. Sisti on his bio page here.
Learn more about Dr. Bruce on his bio page here.
Learn more about Dr. McKhann on his bio page here.
Learn more about Dr. Sheth on his bio page here.

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