Yorkshire team offers hope in fight against asbestos cancer

Prof Penella Woll.
Prof Penella Woll.
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World-leading specialists in Yorkshire have launched a ground-breaking trial harnessing a common virus to target an incurable cancer which claims the lives of thousands of people in the UK every year.

Experts in Sheffield are among only a handful of investigators at centres around the globe examining state-of-the-art viral treatments which could offer hope to patients diagnosed in the future with the deadly asbestos-related condition mesothelioma.

Three patients have so far been given infusions of the herpes simplex virus engineered in the laboratory to kill tumours and leave normal cells unharmed.

Once checks to test its safety have been completed, experts hope to expand the programme to find out if the unique approach can extend the lives of patients or even cure the disease.

Latest figures show more than 2,300 people die from the condition each year in the UK, usually many decades after they were exposed to asbestos.

Average life expectancy is only nine months following diagnosis and symptoms are often severe. It is estimated another 70,000 people in the UK will develop mesothelioma in coming decades.

Viral treatments are among a new generation of potential therapies being explored to treat a range of cancers.

Chief investigator Prof Penella Woll, from the Sheffield Experimental Cancer Medical Centre at Weston Park Hospital, said: “We are really desperate for new treatments for mesothelioma. For us it is terrifically exciting and the patients are very engaged in using this to target tumours rather than the blunderbuss approach of chemotherapy.

“This is something that is unique. If it does what we hope, then I think it could be a major step forward.

“For those patients who can get really severe symptoms the prospect of improving their quality of life will also be really important.”

Co-investigator John Edwards, an internationally-recognised expert on mesothelioma and thoracic surgeon at the Northern General Hospital in Sheffield, said only a “select band” of research teams were looking at the approach around the world.

“It’s been a big effort and hence for Sheffield to join the likes of the other centres world famous for cancer research in this work is a real landmark,” he said.

“The beauty of this treatment it seems is that it is very well tolerated. We don’t know yet if it works but it seems suitable also for those who cannot tolerate chemotherapy as it doesn’t have the toxicity.”

Around 100 patients with the condition are treated in Sheffield each year, mainly people who have worked in heavy industries around South Yorkshire and the north Midlands.

“It’s a devastating disease – completely incurable, resistant to most treatments and it’s progressive,” Me Edwards added.

“It’s frequently extremely painful and it’s something that is not the fault of those that get it. Treatments don’t cure the disease and there is an urgent need for research to develop better therapies.

“The ultimate end point is to improve length of life as well as quality of life and find something that makes an incurable disease a curable disease.”

The initial trial involves 12 patients to test the safety of the therapy in different doses. Researchers want to find out too if the virus is reproducing in cancer cells and killing them. Patients are also being scanned to see what impact the therapy has on tumours.

The virus has been developed by biotechnology firm Virttu Biologics and has already been used in trials on patients in the United States with brain and liver cancers, as well as in children with cancer.

Its chief executive officer Steven Powell said: “This study is an important step in our efforts to both develop a new treatment option for mesothelioma and demonstrate the safety of regional delivery of oncolytic viruses. We are delighted that the first patients have been treated successfully and we are looking forward to future data as the study continues.”

Special Report: Page 6.