ASCO Immunotherapy Preview: These Cancer-Killing Viruses May Save Lives

“The closely watched annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) is about to kick off in Chicago, and if the last few years are any indication, immunotherapy will likely steal the show. Cancer researchers have been perfecting all sorts of ways to stimulate patients’ immune systems to fight cancer, from chimeric antigen receptor T-cells (CARTs) now being tested in blood cancers, to ‘checkpoint inhibitors’ like Bristol-Myers Squibb’s blockbuster melanoma treatment Yervoy (ipilimumab). But this year, an up-and-coming class of immune-boosting drugs could draw attention at ASCO—viruses that are specially engineered so they destroy tumors and then prime patients’ immune systems to continue fighting off their cancer.

“Virus-based cancer treatments, sometimes referred to as ‘virotherapy,’ constitute a fast-growing niche within immunotherapy, and one that is generating a tremendous amount of excitement in the oncology world this year. The idea has actually been around since the late 1800s, when physicians first realized that some viruses have a natural ability to kill cancer cells. But these so-called oncolytic viruses didn’t start breaking out until recently, as advances in genetic engineering have made it feasible to manipulate the virus’ genomes—recreating them, if you will, into supercharged cancer-killing machines that attack tumors but leave normal tissues alone.”