New hope in the fight against cancer: a genetically modified virus can increase the life expectancy of children with brain tumors

Each year in Europe, more than 35,000 new cases of childhood cancer are diagnosed and 6,000 children die from it. The breakthrough made by Spanish researchers concerns infiltrating glioma of the brainstem (GITC). In France, nearly 50 children are affected each year, as many girls as boys, making GITC a rare tumour.

The discovery of a genetically modified cold virus capable of killing cancerous cells restores hope in the treatment of the deadliest childhood brain tumor called invasive brainstem glioma. It is a very aggressive cancer that affects children and adolescents, and half of the patients do not survive more than a year. The stakes are enormous because there is currently no effective treatment.

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The survival rate has not increased for more than 15 years in the face of this type of cancer. Both the medical community and the parents concerned are constantly alerting the authorities to the need to further develop research to improve treatment and above all increase the life expectancy of affected children.

Invasive brainstem glioma (IBG) is a brain tumor located under the brain, above the medulla oblongata. It is a deep and fragile area related to vital functions such as balance, breathing, bladder control, heart rate and blood pressure. This region is also traversed by nerves related to vision, hearing, speech, swallowing and movement.

In an article published this June 30 in the journal The New England Journal Of Medicine, researchers reveal that the use of virotherapy, associated with radiotherapy in children with an infiltrating glioma of the brainstem has led to changes in lymphocyte activity and reduction or stabilization of tumor size in patients.

The process is based on antitumor virotherapy and in this specific case, the modification of adenoviruses specific to the respiratory tract, the very ones that make tumors cancerous in the context of infiltrating glioma cancer of the brainstem.

Virotherapy is a therapeutic strategy consisting in using a virus, in this case an adenovirus, which, once reprogrammed by means of genetics, can eliminate cells or tissues of an organism or reprogram certain dysfunctional cells. Not only are the cells killed by the virus, but the resulting cellular waste stimulates the immune system against the tumor.

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And that’s exactly what the researchers found.
“Our results are promising because they show that virotherapy can be an additional treatment route for this disease completely devoid of effective therapies”says Jaime Gállego, neurologist at the University Clinic of Navarre, coordinator of the brain tumor area and co-author of this work published in New England Journal of Medicine, an authoritative journal whose publications are verified and validated by peers.

In a clinical trial in 12 patients aged 3-18 yearsthe modified virus used, an oncovirus, has therefore proved to be safe for children, without serious side effects and well tolerated by patients.

Applied with radiotherapy, the virus was able to increase the average survival of participants from 12 months to 17.8 months. Two of the children participating in this study are still alive, three years after the detection of the tumour.

“It may seem like little progress, little time gained from the disease, but it is a decisive step forward“says Jaime Gállego, neurologist at the University Clinic of Navarre, coordinator of the brain tumor area and co-author of this study, whose conclusions are published in the scientific journal.

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And to add in conclusion: “Our results are encouraging because they show that virotherapy, a type of immunotherapy, can be one more treatment route for this disease completely devoid of effective therapies”.

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