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FDA approves first cancer-killing virus Imlygic, a modified herpes virus that attacks melanoma...

Stashed in: Science!, Science Too, Cancer, Biotech!, Cancer, CRISPR

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Using viruses to fight cancer sounds oddly satisfying.

Viruses are usually thought of as agents of disease. But for the first time, scientists are poised to bring to the US market a virus that can help thwart cancer, a development that could herald a new age of viral therapies.

Approved by the Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday for treating advanced-stage melanoma, the virus — called Imlygic, which was developed in part in a Massachusetts lab — is a modified version of the herpes virus that both attacks the cancer and sparks the immune system into action against tumors.

In clinical trials, it has helped some cancer patients achieve remission with few of the nasty side effects common to existing treatments. And as the first tumor-killing virus to receive the FDA’s blessing, Imlygic could accelerate the development of other viral therapies.

“This is huge for the whole field, and for cancer patients,” said John Bell, a senior scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute in Canada. “The field is exploding, and this would be another arrow in the quiver that oncologists use.”

Imlygic is part of a new group of immune-stimulating viral therapies that could change how cancer is treated and managed. One involves a genetically tweaked poliovirus being tested in patients with brain tumors, while another, based on a version of the common cold virus, is now under evaluation in people with bladder cancer.

Melanoma is a deadly form of skin cancer that kills around 10,000 people per year in the United States. In a trial of 436 patients with the disease, 16 percent of participants who received Imlygic saw their tumors shrink for at least six months, compared with just 2 percent of those who received an older immune-boosting drug. Among those whose cancer had spread locally but not to internal organs, the response rate was better — 33 percent.

“It’s a low-toxicity treatment, and for the right patients you see quite stunning results,” said Robert Coffin, a virologist who created Imlygic at BioVex, the Woburn-based company he founded.

A few Reddit comments mention putting CRISPR-Cas9 into viruses:

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