Oct 28, 2015 1:00 AM


Robert Andtbacka
Robert Andtbacka

Novel Therapy Just Approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

SALT LAKE CITY - The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced October 27 that it has approved, for the first time, an oncolytic (cancer-killing) viral therapy in the U.S. The drug was approved for use against late stage melanoma, a deadly skin cancer that can be difficult to treat.

The approval came as the result of a recent Phase III study, which showed that more patients with late stage melanoma, treated with a herpes cold sore virus designed to kill tumor cells, had a better response when compared to a different treatment. Robert Andtbacka, M.D., from Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah and Howard L. Kaufman, M.D., from Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey led the multisite study, published May 26 online in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.
 
According to Andtbacka, “the goal of this targeted therapy is to treat late stage patients more effectively and with fewer side effects.”
 
The researchers employed a genetically modified herpes virus, made by the pharmaceutical company Amgen, which was designed to replicate inside tumors and kill them. In addition, the virus contains a human gene to make granulocyte macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF) with the goal of causing an anti-tumor immune response in the patient.
 
Frequently tumor cells evade the immune system, but Andtbacka says the therapy was developed to retrain the immune system to recognize the melanoma as something that shouldn’t be there. “Not only are the injected tumor cells destroyed, but the immune system is activated to fight the melanoma not only where we injected it, but also at distant sites.”
 
In the clinical trial, patients with Stage IIIB, IIIC, or IV melanoma were randomized to receive either the virus therapy talimogene laherparepvec (T-VEC) injected directly into their tumors or to receive an injection of GM-CSF under the skin.
 
The researchers observed that T-VEC virus immunotherapy caused tumors to shrink compared to treatment with GM-CSF alone: 16% of T-VEC treated participants (n = 295) experienced a durable response, meaning that their tumors shrank for >6 months, relative to 2% of the GM-CSF alone group (n = 141). While patients’ lifespans, on average, were only extended by a small amount (4.4 months), 32 (11%) of the T-VEC recipients and one GM-CSF recipient (<1%), showed no signs of cancer after treatment.
 
Both local and systemic immune responses after treatment with T-VEC were also observed by the researchers, supporting the idea that combining T-VEC with other immunotherapies might further increase effectiveness. Studies testing such combination therapies are currently underway.
 
Andtbacka says the most common adverse effects of the T-VEC treatment were modest, consisting of flu-like symptoms, such as fatigue, chills, nausea, and injection site reactions. Although more severe adverse effects did occur in some patients, the only one occurring in > 2% of T-VEC treated patients was cellulitis, a potentially dangerous skin infection (2.1%). “This safety profile is encouraging, since this is the first randomized trial of an oncolytic virus in patients with cancer,” says Andtbacka.
 
T-VEC represents a novel treatment option for patients with injectable metastatic melanoma. This collaborative work was enabled by Amgen, manufacturer of the T-VEC virus and will be marketed under the name IMLYGICTM.

Media Contact

Ashlee Harrison
Public Relations – Huntsman Cancer Institute
public.affairs@hci.utah.edu
801-585-1954

About Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah

Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) at the University of Utah is the official cancer center of Utah and the only National Cancer Institute (NCI)-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center in the Mountain West. The campus includes a state-of-the-art cancer specialty hospital, and two buildings dedicated to cancer research. HCI provides patient care, cancer screening, and education at community clinics and affiliate hospitals throughout the Mountain West. HCI is consistently recognized among the best cancer hospitals in the country by U.S. News and World Report. The region’s first proton therapy center opened in 2021 and a major hospital expansion is underway. HCI is committed to creating a diverse and inclusive environment for staff, students, patients, and communities. Advancing cancer research discoveries and treatments to meet the needs of patients who live far away from a major medical center is a unique focus. More genes for inherited cancers have been discovered at HCI than at any other cancer center, including genes responsible for breast, ovarian, colon, head and neck cancers, and melanoma. HCI was founded by Jon M. and Karen Huntsman.

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