Going viral – Leeds researchers target brain cancer cure

Leeds research could see the development of a revolutionary new treatment for brain cancer.

Professor Susan Short


Around 9,000 people are diagnosed with brain cancer in the UK every year. And while treatments for many cancers have improved in recent years, the prognosis for brain cancer patients has barely changed.  

Though rare, brain cancer presents a number of major challenges. It’s impossible to diagnose early because the symptoms develop so rapidly – and it affects children, adults and the elderly, with no apparent links to their lifestyle.

“It is a very scary disease,” says Professor Susan Short, who is leading the research team at the University and Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust that is working on a potential new treatment to tackle the disease.

The statistics are shocking. Brain cancer kills more people under the age of 40 than any other type of cancer and kills more children each year than leukaemia. And the number of people who die from the illness is rising steadily, up 27% since 2002 compared to only a 5% rise for cancer generally.

Unlike some cancers, it resists all attempts to tackle it with conventional treatments. Even after surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy, tumours never really disappear.

But now Professor Short’s research group, based at Leeds Cancer Centre at St James’s Hospital, is investigating a revolutionary viral therapy for brain cancer. They are running a two-year clinical trial into the use of an oncolytic virus which can be injected into patients to target and kill brain cancer cells.

If successful, the virus will work in two ways. First, it will target cancer cells, attacking tumours while leaving healthy cells unharmed. Second, it will ‘switch on’ the natural defences of the patient’s immune system to recognise cancer cells and destroy them. Similar techniques have been used to treat other types of cancer, but this is the first time this approach has been used for brain cancer in the UK. 

Initial findings from the research have been very promising, and have shown that a virus injected into a patient is able to make its way to brain cancer cells without doing harm to patients’ healthy tissue.

Funding from Cancer Research UK has now enabled Professor Short and her team to test the use of the virus on 30 patients who have a very poor prognosis. And if the trials are successful they provide fresh hope at last of an effective treatment for those affected by this terrible disease.

"For decades it was felt nothing could be done for brain cancer patients,” says Professor Short. “Now a concentration of expertise at Leeds and our promising early results are finally holding out the hope of success.”

More details can be found on the Making a World of Difference website.

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