What Really Matters

Ontario Researchers Lead the World’s First Clinical Trial of a Double Virus Therapy for Cancer Patients

Patients across Ontario research hospitals are taking part in the world’s first clinical trial of a new cancer-fighting double virus therapy discovered jointly by scientists at CHEO, The Ottawa Hospital, and McMaster University. The enormous potential of this world-class discovery is emblematic of how health research contributes to a healthier, wealthier, smarter Ontario.

Christina Monker, a former nurse from Rockland, Ontario, is one of small group of nine patients across Ontario research hospitals taking part in the world’s first clinical trial of a new cancer-fighting viral therapy.

Jointly discovered by Dr. David Stojdl of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) and uOttawa, Dr. John Bell of The Ottawa Hospital and Dr. Brian Lichty of McMaster University, this unique therapeutic approach uses a combination of two viruses to attack and kill cancer cells, while stimulating an anti-cancer immune response.

Previous research by this team, and others worldwide, suggests that this approach could offer an effective treatment for cancer with fewer side effects than chemotherapy and radiation.

Dr. Derek Jonker of The Ottawa Hospital leads the trial, which is the first in the world to evaluate this kind of double virus therapy to treat cancer.

Dr. Brian Lichty (L), Dr. Derek Jonker, Christina Monker, Dr. David Stojdl and Dr. John Bell
Dr. Brian Lichty (L), Dr. Derek Jonker, Christina Monker, Dr. David Stojdl and Dr. John Bell

“The idea is to use one virus to prime the patient’s immune system to recognize their cancer, and then use a different virus to directly kill their cancer and further stimulate their immune system to prevent the cancer from coming back,” explained Dr. John Bell.

The treatment uses the Maraba virus, first isolated from Brazilian sandflies, and the Adenovirus, a form of the common cold virus. In lab testing, both viruses have successfully triggered a long-lasting anti-tumour immune response. Both viruses are being manufactured at The Ottawa Hospital and McMaster University.

The clinical trial uses two viruses to kill cancer cells, and activate a patient's own immune system against a specific target on their tumour.
The clinical trial uses two viruses to kill cancer cells, and activate a patient’s own immune system against a specific target on their tumour.

Building on Decades of Scientific Thought

The concept of using viruses to treat cancer is not entirely new. In fact, it has been over a century since scientists first understood that cancer patients could recover after becoming infected with a virus. However, serious development and testing of viral therapy in cancer patients has only begun in recent years.

World-Leading Clinical Trials

“While breakthroughs begin in a lab, they don’t end there,” Dr. Jonker said, “There is no way we can find new treatments for cancer without testing them in people in clinical trials. This clinical trial will help us find out whether this viral therapy is going to be useful as a future cancer treatment.”

This ground-breaking research is funded by the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research and coordinated by the NCIC Clinical Trials Group.

This trial is expected to enroll up to 79 patients at four institutions, including The Ottawa Hospital, the Juravinski Cancer Centre of Hamilton Health Sciences, the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre of the University Health Network, and the Vancouver Centre of the BC Cancer Agency. Up to 24 patients will receive one of the viruses, while the rest will receive both viruses two weeks apart.

The Patient’s View

Ms. Monker was diagnosed with cancer in 2012, and after 30 rounds of chemotherapy, she was discouraged. “I experienced severe nausea,” she said. “I couldn’t eat. I lost all my hair. I developed sores in my mouth, and my hands and feet went numb. I knew I couldn’t go on that way.”

Under the care of Dr. Jonker, she consented to participate in the trial at The Ottawa Hospital. “I felt like this might be my last hope,” she explained. In June 2015, about 10 billion particles of the Maraba virus were infused into her bloodstream.

Christina Monker, one of a small group of heroic patients to take part in world-first clinical trial, at the Healthier, Wealthier, Smarter podium.
Christina Monker, one of a small group of heroic patients to take part in world-first clinical trial, at the Healthier, Wealthier, Smarter podium.

It is premature to assess the treatment’s overall impact, but reflecting on the side effects about a month after treatment, Ms. Monker was positive. “For the next couple days [following treatment], I felt like I had the flu, but it was nothing like chemotherapy. The virus symptoms were easily managed and short-lived.”

Dr. Jonker, who leads the clinical trial, applauded her courage and positive attitude. “In my opinion, people who participate in the clinical trials are heroes. They are willing to partner with doctors and scientists to try and make a breakthrough, not just for themselves, but for other people like them.”

People who are interested in participating in this trial or other trials should speak with their own cancer specialist. The Ottawa Hospital has also developed a webpage on viral therapy trials specifically for its patients.

Potential for the Future of Cancer Treatment

According to Dr. Stojdl, the significant potential of this discovery could impact cancer treatment worldwide. “We’re pushing very hard to develop a suite of biological therapies with the goal of launching similar trials for many other types of tumours, including brain cancer and several devastating childhood cancers.”

The development and progress of this trial, from the lab to clinical trials, is illustrative of the impact that Ontario’s collaborative health research can have on the health of people in Ontario, Canada and around the world.

To learn more, visit: http://bit.ly/1KmuC6P