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Research Highlight | December 14, 2023

Study finds new clinical trial drug boosts ability of oncolytic virus to target and kill cancer

Researchers at The Ottawa Hospital have identified a method to boost the activity of cancer-fighting viruses, known as oncolytic viruses, by pairing one with a new cancer drug currently in clinical trials. Their findings present an exciting new approach to treatment for patients who may be resistant to virus treatment alone.

“Cancer has always been a tricky disease to treat and one that requires creative solutions,” says study lead Dr. Jean-Simon Diallo, senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital and associate professor at the University of Ottawa.

Oncolytic viruses are one such solution being explored to fight cancer. These viruses can be tailored to selectively find, infect and kill cancer cells, much like clinically approved immunotherapies, which enlist the patient’s own immune system to help fight the cancer.

However, one of the main challenges of oncolytic therapy is that sometimes viruses on their own fail to infect cancer cells, or enough cancer cells in a tumour.

“Our study shows that by combining the cancer-killing viruses with this new drug, pevonedistat, the virus has a better chance of doing its job to target and kill the cancer. This works because the drug temporarily lowers the cancer’s anti-virus defense,” says Dr. Diallo.

The study, published in the journal Molecular Therapy, was carried out by Boaz Wong, MD/PhD student at the University of Ottawa, with funding from The Terry Fox Research Institute.

It demonstrated that pevonedistat blocked the interferon pathway responsible for the body’s ability to defend itself against viruses and cancer, which in turn increased the sensitivity of cancer cells to a cancer-fighting virus called VSVΔ51.

“Oncolytic viruses are becoming a popular subject of investigation given that they are rapidly progressing through clinical trials,” says Dr. Diallo. “As soon as we are able to get over the current hurdles, the potential for oncolytic viruses (with the help of viral-enhancing drugs like pevonedistat) to help patients beat their cancer is very high.”

The team hopes that these findings will not only add another tool to the oncologist’s toolbox, but also accelerate the advancement of these combination therapy approaches in clinical trials so that patients can reap the benefits.

This study was funded by a Terry Fox New Frontiers Program Project Grant: Canadian Oncolytic Virus Consortium (COVco).