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Louisville Researchers Use Herpes Virus in Clinical Trial to Treat Cancer

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Researchers at Louisville's James Graham Brown Cancer Center have found a new way to treat advanced melanoma using the herpes simplex 1 virus.

The genetically modified virusta, limogene laherparepvec, or T-VEC, invades and kills cancer cells by stimulating the body’s immune system. The virus does not harm healthy cells or cause patients to develop cold sores.

Dr. Jason Chesney, deputy director of the cancer center, worked with a team of international scientists to carry out clinical trials and found that patients with advanced melanoma had improved survival.

He said traditional approaches, such as chemotherapy, for advanced cancers are non-curative and only suppress the growth of tumors.

“When we can activate the immune system and cause a tumor to shrink those responses, the shrinkage is durable. It lasts for years and frequently for a lifetime,” he said.

About 75 people have participated since the trial began in 2009 at the cancer center, which is part of KentuckyOne Health. Ten percent of patients experience shrinkage in their tumors with the viral immunotherapy, Chesney said.

Steven Tompkins,52, learned he had stage IIIb melanoma in February. He said he was given several options and decided to enroll in the clinical trial.

Every two weeks he receives a series of injections of the modified virus along with labs. Tompkins experiences flu-like symptoms for as long as 12 hours following the injections, he said.

"The only side-effect I have had is a rash so there's been some itching on my arms and legs. It's more irritating than anything but that hasn't stopped me from daily work or hobbies or anything," Tompkins said.

Tompkins will continue in the trial until March of next year.

Chesney said only five to 10 percent of patients enroll in clinical trials, which means a vast majority don't get access to the most innovative treatments.

“It’s absolutely essential if you’re ever diagnosed with a cancer today to go to a facility, a cancer center that has a robust clinical trials program because it may save your life and it may save one of your loved ones lives,” Chesney said.

Tompkins said early results from being on the immunotherapy seem promising.

"We've had some scans done and have gotten results back, and Dr. Chesney is very happy with the results of those scans after 12 weeks," Tompkins said.

The Food and Drug Administration and the European Medicines Agency are considering making the treatment available to more patients.