The last few days have brought some good news on some unusual approaches to cancer therapy. First off was Amgen's report that they'd seen positive results in advanced melanoma using a modified HSV treatment. This is technology that they brought in by buying Biovex in 2011, and as a minor side effect, if it works, it'll be so much the better for Roger Perlmutter (now at Merck), since this was a deal made under his watch.
Specifically, the company says that 16% of patients showed a response (durable response rate, DRR) to the treatment, versus 2% of the control group. That's encouraging, but the big question is overall survival. DRR will get you little or nothing at the FDA, or shouldn't, if people don't actually live longer. We should have those numbers later this year - considering what sort of shape people are in with late-stage melanoma, you can look at the odds two different ways. The disease is so advanced, perhaps, that it'll be difficult for anything to show a benefit. Or, on the other hand, anything that doe have an effect will stand out, since the control group's course will be so relentless.
I hope this works, both for the patients and for the idea of using a virus to attack cancerous cells. That one's been kicking around for a long time, with several companies in the chase, and it has a lot of appealing features. But it also has a lot of tricky details, too - targeting the tumor cells over normal ones, finding the appropriate viral platform, delivering it safely to the patient, and more. There's also the question of whether you just want to lyse the tumor cells with a viral load, or also make them express some therapeutically useful protein. The Amgen/Biovex HSV virus in this latest trial, for example, also causes the cells to express GM-CSF for an additional immune response (with the control group getting GM-CSF alone).
So even though this has been actively researched in humans since the mid-1990s, I'd still call it the early days. Here's hoping for more encouraging news, from Amgen and the others in this chase.