Herpes virus breakthrough

Aug. 4, 2010
Doctors use a genetically engineered herpes virus to help treat patients suffering from mouth, neck, and head cancer.

In a trial run by the Institute of Cancer Research and the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, 17 patients were given injections of the virus, as well as being treated with chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

The cold sore virus, known as Onco VEX, was modified to multiply inside cancer cells but not in healthy ones. It would then burst and kill tumour cells, as well as releasing a human protein that would help stimulate patients' immune systems.

The virus was injected into cancer affected lymph nodes of the patients, in up to four doses.

Tumour shrinkage could be seen on scans for 14 patients, and more than three-quarters of the participants showed no trace of residual cancer in their lymph nodes during subsequent surgery to remove them. More than two years later, more than three-quarters of the patients involved in the study had not succumbed to the disease.

Dr Kevin Harrington, principle investigator for the ICR and rhe Royal Marsden said: "Around 35 to 55% of patients given the standard chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment typically relapse within two years, so these results compare very favourably.

He added, "This was a small study so the results should be interpreted with caution; however, the very high rates of tumour response have led to the decision to take this drug into a large scale Phase III trial."

The treatment's side effects were mild to moderate, and most (except fever and fatigue) were thought to be caused by the chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Chief Executive of the British Dental Health Foundation, Dr Nigel Carter, said: "This study is very positive news. Mouth cancer is a devastating disease, and an increasing number of people are being affected. While any treatment that can be found to fight the disease is a great step forward, it is also vital that awareness of the illness, the early symptoms and the risk factors is made common knowledge. Early diagnosis improves survival rates from five in 10 to nine in 10 people. That highlights how important it is that the public know the facts."

Mouth cancer claims one life every five hours in the UK and more than 5,000 new cases are diagnosed each year.
Tobacco use is the main cause for mouth cancer, with those who drink and smoke to excess being 30 times more likely to develop the disease.

The human papilloma virus has also been identified as a threat. Transmitted via oral sex, and also a known cause of cervical cancer, experts suggest HPV may rival tobacco as a key risk factor within the next 10 years.

An unhealthy diet can also have an impact, with a third of mouth cancer cases being linked to poor eating habits. Growing evidence suggests an increased intake of fruit, vegetables, fish, and eggs can help to lower the risks.

Early warning signs of the disease include a non-healing mouth ulcer, red or white patches and any unusual changes in the mouth. If you are suffering any of these symptoms or have any concerns, the foundation advises you visit your dentist or doctor.

If you need advice on mouth cancer or any other dental issue, contact the Dental Helpline for independent and confidential advice. Operated by oral health educators, the Helpline can inform on topics from mouth cancer to cosmetic treatments to dental hygiene.

The service is available between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday to Friday, at 0845 063 1188 or visit www.dentalhealth.org.

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