It’s Not Just The Flu. A Pittsburgh-Area Company Is Working On A Virus That Could Kill Cancer

Dec 6, 2016

Stephen Thorne Stands in the Western Oncolytics Lab in Harmar, where the company is working to cure cancer by building a virus.
Credit Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

Could a virus offer a cure to cancer?

That’s the question researchers at Western Oncolytics, based in Harmar, are trying to answer. In fact, they’re hoping to start clinical trials in 2017.

Chief science officer Stephen Thorne said the idea that a virus could help kill cancer has been around for a century, but only since the 1990s have scientists been able to modify DNA to create a virus specifically designed to fight cancer.  

The first wave of research focused on creating a virus that could only grow inside a tumor.

“Because the virus could only replicate in a cancer cell and not in a normal cell, you end up with a therapy that actually can amplify itself up exactly where it’s needed,” Thorne said. “It would directly destroy the cancer cells as a result of the viral replication.” 

As the research grew, scientists started to realize that such a virus could also counteract a cancer cell’s ability to hide from the immune system. That means the cancer’s cloaking ability is eliminated and the body can begin to recognize the cancer as being foreign and mount an attack.

Thorne said originally that type of dual response virus was created by replacing one part of the virus’s DNA to limit it to replicating only within a cancer cell and a second DNA change to stimulate the body’s immune response to the cancer.

“We’ve take a step forward in complexity because we have a virus that has several gene deletions, several transgenes inserted into the virus and a surface modification to help deliver it more effectively to the tumor,” Thorne said.

Western Oncolytics researchers also plan to deliver the virus via the patient’s blood stream, rather than injecting it directly into a tumor.

“The virus will infect multiple organs throughout the body, but only actually be able to replicate and carry on a productive infection within the tumor,” Thorne said. “So it gets cleared everywhere else but just amplifies itself up and replicates selectively in the tumor.”

Thorne said the only side effect of the virus would be flu-like symptoms.

“We see a lot of efficacy against a lot of different cancers so were thinking about approaches that aren’t targeted to a particular … disease type,” he said.  “If it recognizes cancer as foreign it doesn’t really care what organ it comes from, it’s still going to hopefully target and reject it.”

The company has the backing of the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, which Thorne said should help get the product through human trials. The first step will be ramping up from small doses, to larger doses with an eye on finding the right amount needed to kill various forms of cancer. 

In this week's Tech Headlines: 

  • The University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering will take the lead on a five-year, $3 million research effort to better identify which brain aneurysms are most likely to rupture. Doctors often have to weigh the risk of brain surgery versus the risk of a rupture if they don't operate without an accurate modeling tool. Researcher Anne Robertson said understanding the structures of collagen fibers in aneurysm walls is essential for improving risk assessment. Researchers will use computational models to explore the mechanics of structural failures.
  • Federal prosecutors and FBI agents in Pittsburgh this week offered more details from a recent take down of the Avalanche network. The group is accused of inflicting hundreds of millions of dollars in losses worldwide before it was dismantled with the arrest of five key suspects. Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala said his office was hit by the cybercrime group. Another business in New Castle was twice targeted with unsuccessful efforts to steal more than $243,000. The Justice Department says the network infected at least half a million computers worldwide.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.