Brain and Body

Treating Cancer with Herpes was Just Approved by the FDA

October 31, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

herpes virus
Photo credit: Dominic Alves/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Make sure you understand how the herpes treatment works before freaking out.

The FDA themselves called it a “first-of-its-kind” treatment this week when they approved a drug that uses the herpes simplex virus to help combat skin cancer. It might strike you as strange since both oral and genital herpes are incurable, but in fact, viruses have been used since 1919 to treat disease.

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The FDA-approved drug, Talimogene laherperepvec (to be sold under the brand name Imlygic), will be used on cancerous tumors that cannot be removed surgically — specifically, patients with hard-to-treat melanoma. Imlygic is a genetically-modified version of the herpes simplex virus, and it’s administered through injections to the site of lesions.

The modified herpes verus replicates within tumors and causes cell death by bursting the cells and releasing antigens that could promote an anti-tumor response. So far, the results have been pretty promising. Of the 436 study participants who had a tumor that couldn’t be surgically removed, 16.3 percent experienced a decrease in the lesion sizes on their skin and lymph nodes during the six month treatment course. That number may not sound big, but a group who received a comparator therapy only experienced a 2.1 percent decrease, ScienceAlert reported.

Imlygic could potentially improve overall melanoma survival rates, but there hasn’t been research to support that just yet. The studies have only looked at its effect on lesion sizes, but perhaps further research will produce even more exciting results.

The only downside is that the Imlygic treatments are expected to cost about $65,000. However, skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the US as well as the leading cause of cancer-related deaths across the globe. Despite the treatment’s cost and potential unwanted side effects, like nausea, fever, and flu, any new skin cancer treatment provides hope for the victims of the disease.

“Not all melanoma patients currently benefit from available therapies, and Imlygic represents an important new option that can provide meaningful durable responses for patients with this aggressive and complex disease,” Sean E. Harper, executive vice president of research and development at Amgen (the drug company), said in a press release.

Using an incurable virus to treat another disease is certainly not a run-of-the-mill approach, but it goes to show that creativity isn’t only critical for artistic endeavors. With the innovative minds working to transform current treatments and therapies, we can only imagine what the future holds for the medical field.

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