Researchers studying polio virus to treat brain cancer

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Tuesday, October 17, 2017
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Doctors are now using a virus from a disease that's been largely eradicated to fight brain tumors.

SANTA MONICA, Calif. (KABC) -- Doctors are now using a virus from a disease that's been largely eradicated to fight brain tumors.

The polio virus is the latest weapon in the fight against cancer.

In Thanksgiving 2016, 48-year-old Raimond der Avanessian was the picture of health. Without any warning, he collapsed into his family's arms.

"When I came to, I saw the EMT person standing over my head asking me questions of, 'Do you know where you are? Do you know your name?''" der Avanessian recalled.

The tests revealed a brain tumor. The diagnosis was gliobastoma.

"I was shocked," der Avanessian said. "What does that mean? What do we do?"

The aggressive cancer is often resistant to conventional treatment like chemotherapy and radiation. Because of this, researchers at Providence St. John's Health Center are investigating the source of a largely eradicated disease: polio.

"But it is an engineered virus so that it's not the normal polio virus that causes polio," said Dr. Santosh Kesari, an oncologist at Providence St. John's Health Center.

Kesari and his colleagues are studying various types of viruses in the fight against glioblastoma, but research on the polio virus specifically is being done in other clinical trials around the country.

Unlike other viruses used in fighting cancer, the polio virus tends to cause inflammation which revs up the immune system. Dr. Santosh Kesari said one of the reasons cancer forms is as we age, our immune system isn't as efficient at clearing cells that can form cancer.

"And so when we inject these viruses we're actually resetting the immune system and making the immune system recognize the tumor cells in the context of the viral infection," said Kesari.

The research is now in phase two clinical trials. Kesari said every glioblastoma has different bio markers which means the polio virus may not be the solution for every case, but it's one of dozens of viral treatments underway. This gives der Avanessian hope.

"There is no good time to be diagnosed with a disease like this. But if there ever was, this would be a good time because there's a lot of research being done," der Avanessian said.

Keseri believes researching different treatments is important. "I think probably in the next five to 10 years we will really make a lot of progress in brain tumors because we have the knowledge base now and we have the methodologies to quickly understand all the mutations."

Der Avanessian looks to his doctors to find new treatments and his family to give him strength.

"Your primary support system is your family, so just stay tight and close to each other," der Avanessian said. "Don't feel that this disease happened to your because you've done something wrong. It just happens."