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First human injected with groundbreaking cancer-killing virus

As the beginning of a phase 1 human clinical trial, scientists from biotechnology company Imugene Ltd and cancer research and treatment center City of Hope have recently injected the first human patient with a cancer-killing virus called CF33-hNIS VAXINIA, which has been shown to shrink solid cancerous tumors in animals. This oncolytic virus has been genetically engineered to infect, replicate within, and kill cancer cells, while sparing the healthy ones. Clinical trials on animals have shown that this treatment can significantly reduce the size of colon, lung, breast, pancreatic, and ovarian cancer tumors.

“The dosing of the first patient in our VAXINIA study is a significant milestone for Imugene and clinicians faced with the challenge of treatment for metastatic advanced solid tumors,” said Dr. Leslie Chong, MD, the CEO of Imugene.

“Our previous research demonstrated that oncolytic viruses can stimulate the immune system to respond to and kill cancer, as well as stimulate the immune system to be more responsive to other immunotherapies, including checkpoint inhibitors,” added Dr. Daneng Li, an assistant professor in the City of Hope’s Department of Medical Oncology & Therapeutics.

VAXINIA is a type of “oncolytic virus” – a virus found in nature which has been genetically engineered to infect and kill cancer cells, while sparing healthy ones. Although other immunotherapies such as immune checkpoint inhibitors have proven effective in containing the spread of certain cancers, patients often relapse and eventually develop resistance to this type of treatment. Researchers believe that VAXINIA can better prime patients’ immune systems by increasing the levels of a protein called PD-L1 in tumors, thus making immunotherapy more effective against a variety of cancers.

“Interestingly, the same characteristics that eventually make cancer cells resistant to chemotherapy or radiation treatment actually enhance the success of oncolytic viruses, such as CF33-hNIS,” said Dr. Yuman Fong, a surgical oncologist at City of Hope and one of the main developers of this innovative treatment. “We are hoping to harness the promise of virology and immunotherapy for the treatment of a wide variety of deadly cancers.”

The first phase of human clinical trials will begin by delivering low doses of this virus to cancer patients with metastatic or advanced solid tumors. If the trial demonstrates safety at low levels, new participants will receive the experimental oncolytic virus in combination with the immunotherapy drug pembrolizumab, an engineered antibody which boosts the immune system’s ability to fight cancer cells. 

“Now is the time to further enhance the power of immunotherapy, and we believe CF33-hNIS has the potential to improve outcomes for our patients in their battle with cancer,” concluded Dr. Li.


By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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