skip to main content
Research Highlight | Jul 10, 2015

Cancer patients treated in world-first clinical trial of viral therapy

John Bell
Dr. John Bell, project leader of the Terry Fox Program Project Canadian Oncolytic Virus Consortium (COVCo)

Terry Fox-funded researchers are key members of a Canadian team to have launched the world’s first clinical trial of a new therapy that uses a combination of two viruses to attack and kill cancer cells, and stimulate an anti-cancer immune response. Previous research by this team and others worldwide suggests that this approach could be very powerful, and could have fewer side effects than conventional chemotherapy and radiation, although it will take years to rigorously test through this trial and others.

The therapy was jointly discovered and is being developed by Dr. David Stojdl (Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, University of Ottawa), Dr. Brian Lichty (McMaster University) and Dr. John Bell (The Ottawa Hospital, University of Ottawa), and their respective research teams and colleagues. Drs. Bell, Lichty and Stojdl are principal investigators on the Terry Fox Program Project Canadian Oncolytic Virus Consortium (COVCo), which has been key to developing the anti-cancer viruses.

The clinical trial, which is funded by the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research and coordinated by the NCIC Clinical Trials Group, is expected to enroll up to 79 patients at four hospitals across Canada. Up to 24 patients will receive one of the viruses and the rest will receive both, two weeks apart.

Christina Monker, 75, a former nurse from Rockland, Ontario, is one of the first patients treated in the trial. She was diagnosed with cancer in 2012 and, despite six weeks of radiation therapy and more than 30 rounds of chemotherapy, the cancer spread to both her lungs. She enrolled in the trial at The Ottawa Hospital and was treated on June 2, 2015.

“The nausea of chemotherapy was worse than I ever could have imagined, but with the viral therapy I just felt like I had the flu for a couple of days, and the symptoms were easily managed,” said Ms. Monker. “It is too soon to know if I may have benefited from this therapy, but I’m very glad to contribute to this important research that could improve care for others.”

The idea of using viruses to treat cancer has been around for more than a century, with sporadic reports of cancer patients experiencing remarkable recoveries after viral infections. However, it is only in recent years that viral therapy has begun to be developed and tested in a rigorous way. Drs. Bell, Lichty and Stojdl began investigating viral therapies for cancer nearly 15 years ago and have been funded by The Terry Fox Foundation since 2004.

“We found that when normal cells become cancerous, it’s like they are making a deal with the devil,” explained Dr. Bell, Project Leader on the Terry Fox Program Project Grant and a senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital. “They acquire genetic mutations that allow them to grow very quickly, but these same mutations also make them more susceptible to viruses.”

The two viruses being tested in this clinical trial are called MG1MA3 and AdMA3. MG1MA3 is derived from a virus called Maraba, which was first isolated from Brazilian sandflies, while AdMA3 is derived from a common cold virus called Adenovirus. Both of these viruses have been engineered to stimulate an immune response against cancer cells that express a protein called MAGE-A3, but the Maraba virus also achieves an extra layer of anti-cancer activity by replicating inside many kinds of cancer cells and killing them directly. These viruses are manufactured in specialized facilities at The Ottawa Hospital and McMaster University.

“The idea behind this trial is to use the Adenovirus to prime the patient’s immune system to recognize their cancer, and then use the Maraba virus to directly kill their cancer and further stimulate their immune system to prevent the cancer from coming back,” explained Dr. Brian Lichty, associate professor at McMaster University. "We're enthusiastic about the potential of this unique therapy."

“We’re very excited about this first clinical trial,” said Dr. Stojdl, senior scientist at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario and associate professor at the University of Ottawa. “We’re continuing to push very hard to develop a suite of biological therapies with the goal of launching similar trials tailored to other types of tumours, including brain cancer and several devastating childhood cancers.”

Viral therapies are one component of a growing field of cancer research that seeks to use biological materials (including cells, genes, antibodies and viruses) to attack cancer cells and stimulate an anti-cancer immune response. This field of research has been called biotherapy or immunotherapy. Dr. Bell and his colleagues recently launched the $60M BioCanRx network to advance this area of research.

The Maraba virus is an important part of a broad biotherapeutics clinical trial development program in Canada that is combining viruses and vaccines with standard and emerging therapies to treat different types of tumours.

In addition to The Ottawa Hospital, the clinical trial is also taking place at the Juravinski Cancer Centre of Hamilton Health Sciences (under the leadership of Dr. Sebastien Hotte), Princess Margaret Cancer Centre of the University Health Network in Toronto (under the leadership of Dr. Albiruni R A Razak) and the Vancouver Centre of the BC Cancer Agency (under the leadership of Dr. Daniel Renouf). The trial was approved by Health Canada, the Ontario Cancer Research Ethics Board and the BC Cancer Agency Research Ethics Board. Further details about the trial are available at clinicaltrials.gov. Patients wishing to participate in the trial should speak with their own oncologist and ask for a referral to one of the participating hospitals. Further details for patients at The Ottawa Hospital are available online.    


More Information
For the full media release and partner media contacts see the OICR website.

Watch Dr. John Bell talk about the Terry Fox Program Project Canadian Oncolytic Virus Consortium (COVCo)


About TFF

The Terry Fox Foundation maintains the vision and principles of Terry Fox while raising money for cancer research through the annual Terry Fox Run, Terry's CAUSE on Campus, National School Run Day and other fundraising initiatives. To date, over $600 million has been raised worldwide for cancer research in Terry Fox's name. The first Terry Fox Run was held in 1981, with The Terry Fox Foundation being created in 1988. Its national headquarters are located in Chilliwack, BC and it has offices in 9 provinces. www.terryfox.org.

About TFRI
Launched in October 2007, The Terry Fox Research Institute is the brainchild of The Terry Fox Foundation and today functions as its research arm. TFRI seeks to improve significantly the outcomes of cancer research for the patient through a highly collaborative, team-oriented, milestone-based approach to research that will enable discoveries to translate quickly into practical solutions for cancer patients worldwide. TFRI collaborates with over 50 cancer hospitals and research organizations across Canada. TFRI headquarters are in Vancouver, BC. www.tfri.ca

TFRI Media Contact

Kelly Curwin, Chief Communications Officer
Terry Fox Research Institute
604-675-8223
Cell: 778-237-8158
kcurwin@tfri.ca