Painful Truth: ‘Miracle’ isn’t the word for cancer research

Miracle is not a word real doctors and scientists use when talking about new cancer treatments.

Miracles don’t happen in cancer research. Cancer itself, even when stopped in its tracks, is still pretty awful. Treatments are never 100 per cent certain, and there are almost always side effects, from hair loss to crippling nausea to surgical scarring and even amputation.

But as the Langley Relay for Life comes back again, and more money is poured into research, it looks like there is an appropriate word for what’s happened in cancer treatment over the last few decades..

Within living memory, we’ve gone from a handful of (mostly) crude treatment methods (surgery, radiation, some chemotherapy) to a host of new methods.

One of the newest is virotherapy, sending in viruses to kill cancer cells. 

This was theorized about years ago – some doctors for centuries had noticed relapses, usually temporary, in patients after a severe viral infection. Viruses seemed to kill off part of the cancer.

Doing that in a controlled way wasn’t possible until the last few decades, and it’s taken years of research, but there are now a few treatments that are showing real promise.

One of the farthest along is a phase 3 trial for a drug/virus called T-VEC, which as fancy name for genetically modified herpes virus.

The Institute for Cancer Research London put 400 patients with aggressive melanoma – skin cancer – into trial for the new treatment. These were patients who had no other options left. Some had seen their cancer metastasize. Others had relapsed after previous treatment. Some had hundreds of deposits of melanoma.

After up to 18 months of T-VEC, one in four patients responded. A full 15 per cent were in remission six months later. Ten per cent went into complete remission – no cancer detectable.

From “you’re going to die” to “we can’t find any cancer” is a pretty big leap.

The treatment works by slicing out the part of the virus that allows it to infect normal cells. But the virus can still wriggle into cancerous cells, where it makes copies of itself until, like an overfilled balloon, the cell bursts. Bye bye, cancer cell. The process also alerts the immune system that something’s going on. It then also gangs up on the cancer.

Similar studies, at an earlier stage, are also underway against one of the nastiest forms of brain cancer, the glioblastoma. There’s no real cure for glioblastoma. There are methods of slowing it down, but that’s about it. 

It was a similar type of cancer that killed my dad, almost 20 years ago. Every year, I’d keep one ear cocked for news of any cancer breakthroughs. Many cancers have seen better treatments. We’ve seen stem cells transplants and immunotherapy extend thousands of lives. But nothing big came along for the nastiest of brain tumours. Until now, when researchers in the U.S. deployed a modified polio virus against glioblastomas.

Half of the people in the first study still died. But half didn’t. Some saw tumours the size of tennis balls shrink to the size of peas.

Virotherapy is very promising. It’s amazing, it’s weird, it’s pretty cool. It’s still not a miracle. Some treatments will pan out, and some won’t. Some people will still die. 

But more will live, whether it’s for another year or for decades. 

The word for what’s happening in cancer research isn’t miracle. It’s hope.

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