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Poliovirus Successfully Treats Deadly Brain Cancer in Research

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Poliovirus Treats Deadly Brain Cancer Successfully in Research Sergey Nezhinkiy/PhotoSpin

Polio is a crippling virus that struck societal fear in the early to middle portion of the last century. It spread through North America and Europe like wildfire, leaving thousands of people — mostly children — dead or paralyzed.

In a strange twist, a modified version of the poliovirus is offering new hope for remission for people with a specific type of brain cancer.

A clinical trial at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, is producing some pretty amazing results.

Researchers are using a modified version of the poliovirus to attack glioblastoma multiforme, one of the deadliest and most aggressive types of brain cancer.

It’s still early, but there have been some successes. Of the 22 people enrolled in the trial, half are doing well and half have died. However, several of those doing well are considered to be in remission, which is pretty much unheard of for glioblastomas.

Stephanie Lipscomb, a 23 year-old senior nursing student at the University of South Carolina, was the first person to undergo the treatment in this trial.

Almost three years after being injected with the virus she is now cancer-free. She is one of two patients in the study who have been declared free of cancer.

“Our trials are for patients with glioblastoma that has returned after treatment or surgery, so the fact that we have patients living now—three years after they were treated with the new therapy, three years since they’ve had a recurrence—it’s pretty amazing,” Dr. Annick Desjardins, one of the main physicians of the study, told The Chronicle.

“We have patients that remain alive longer than the nine months we would have expected. But at this stage of clinical trials, the goal isn’t to look for the survival of the patient, because we’re really looking at the safety. The two patients that have done really well are encouraging for the others, and pushing us to find the right dose [of virus],” she said.

Lipscomb was only 20 when she was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme. After being given only a few months to live, she underwent surgery at Duke University Hospital to remove the tumor. This was followed by chemotherapy and radiation. It returned within two years.

That’s when she agreed to take part in the first phase of a research trial at Duke University's Preston Robert Tisch Brian Tumor Center, during which a modified poliovirus was injected directly into the brain tumor.

Matthias Gromeier, MD, an associate professor of neurosurgery and molecular genetics at Duke pioneered the treatment. He discovered that the poliovirus could kill cancer cells while leaving healthy cells unharmed. The virus attaches to solid tumor cancer cells.

“The problem is that polio can also attach to neurons which is how people develop the polio disease,” Desjardins explained.

“So he removed the toxic part that infected normal neurons, replaced it with the cold virus and kept only the part that attached to cancer cells. That’s why the modified virus is benign, but when we inject the modified poliovirus directly into the tumor, it will infect a few of the cancer cells. The poliovirus dies very rapidly, but it wakes up the immune system, making the immune system think polio is around and attacking the cancer cells.”

During phase one, the researchers are trying to figure out what is the safest dosage for patients — it turns out less is best — and prove that the treatment won’t give the patient polio or trigger another polio epidemic in the general population.

While the treatment looks promising , it will be several more years before it will be available to patients outside clinical studies.


Duke researchers engineer polio virus for cancer treatment. The Chronicle. Abigale Xie, 2 April 2015. Interview Online:

Poliovirus Vaccine Trial Shows Promise for Recurrent Glioblastoma. Duke University, Youtube. 28 July 2013.

Duke University Medical Center Clinical Trials for Adults.

Reviewed April 6, 2015
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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