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March 30, 2015

Has a Duke scientist found a 'miracle' cure for cancer? His patients think so

Daily Briefing

    By reengineering the polio virus—and injecting it into the brains of 22 patients—a Duke University research team may be closing in on a cure for glioblastoma, CBS News' "60 Minutes" reports.

    The treatment stems from the work of Matthias Gromeier, a Duke molecular biologist who has been studying the potential of the polio virus for 25 years.

    While polio is one of the world's most lethal viruses—it took centuries for America to eradicate it through the use of vaccines—Gromeier believed the virus has a potential positive effect.

    Specifically, polio seeks and attaches to a receptor found on cells in most solid tumors—"almost as if polio had evolved for the purpose," according to Scott Pelley, the "60 Minutes" correspondent who reported the story.

    In his research, Gromeier re-engineered the polio virus by removing a key genetic sequence and replacing it with a piece of cold virus. While this new modified virus cannot cause paralysis or death—it is unable to reproduce in normal cells—it can replicate when injected into cancer cells, while releasing toxins that poison the cell. It also sparks a response from the immune system, which normally ignores cancer but can detect polio and will "come in and attack," Gromeier says.

    Gromeier's breakthrough initially drew skepticism. "I thought he was nuts," says Henry Friedman, deputy director of Duke's brain tumor center. "I really thought he was using a weapon that produces paralysis."

    But after seven years of tests on monkeys that did not develop polio, Duke received FDA approval in 2011 to test the virus on human patients. Twenty-two patients have so far undergone the trial, with many of the patients given only months to live before arriving at Duke for the treatment.

    The trial has not been universally successful; eleven patients died. However, they lived months longer than expected—and most of them had received a dose of polio virus that Duke researchers now think may have been too strong. (The researchers are now trying an 85% less potent version of the virus in newer patients.)

    Meanwhile, eleven patients have improved—and four have passed the half-year mark, which Duke is terming "remission."

    Which cancers affect life after remission?

    Stephanie Lipscomb, a nursing student who was dealing with recurrent glioblastoma—and had already hit her lifetime limit of chemotherapy—was the first patient in the trial.

    After three years, she shows no sign of glioblastoma, which Pelley calls "unimaginable" improvement.

    "This, to me, is the most promising therapy I've seen in my career, period," says Friedman.

    "You know, I'm very reluctant to use the cure word, the C word as we call it because we don't know how long it takes to say that a glioblastoma has been cured," says Darell Bigner, head of Duke's brain tumor center.

    "But I am beginning to think about it," he says (Pelley, "60 Minutes," CBS News, 3/29).

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