Virus as Viable Drug

Coincidence or phenomena? The reovirus is Mother Nature's own cancer-killer.
Feb 01, 2007
By Pharmaceutical Executive Editors

Bradley Thompson, CEO of Oncolytics Biotech
When it comes to specialty drugs, there's no hotter area than oncology. For the last few years, much of the interesting science has been focused on targeted therapies, like Avastin (bevacizumab) or Gleevec (imatinib). These drugs are engineered to target specific molecules and pathways, and change the course of cancer cell growth.

But what about the next wave of science? At least for one company, it started back in 1983 at the University of Calgary. Three lab researchers discovered a virus that was able to kill cancer cells that had a particular pathway activated. They watched in amazement: The virus infected malignant tumors, replicated itself, and killed carcinogenic cells—and didn't stop killing until the cancer was gone.

Blame Canada
In 1998, those researchers approached Bradley Thompson, a 20-year biotech veteran with a strong sense of humor—particularly given his early training as a microbiologist. At the time, he was working as the chairman and CEO of the small Canadian company Synsorb. A friend called him and asked him if he could advise the Calgary researchers. Thompson invited them in, and recalls the conclusion to the six-hour presentation.

"They said, 'Could you help us? We're cute scientists, and we don't have a clue about business, and you used to be a cute scientist, and you've gone to the dark side.' That's pretty close to how the conversation went."

Thompson could hardly refuse. He found the science impressive; the animal models, impeccable. Thompson also says the research reached him at a susceptible time in his life: In the span of 180 days, his mother and favorite uncle had died of cancer, and he had undergone major surgery to remove a melanoma from his leg. In 1999, Thompson formed Oncolytics Biotech based on the idea that it could turn this virus, called the reovirus, into a drug.

Thompson confesses that the science behind the virus (branded Reolysin) may seem "wonky," and indeed, for many in the industry, the concept of Oncolytics' therapy is hard to grasp. After all, researchers have become familiar with the complex engineering of adenoviruses and other vectors to carry a specific tumor-fighting gene—but many had never considered releasing the virus to attack cancer cells on its own.

How the Reovirus Works
However, the evidence is slowly mounting and skeptics are climbing on board. The US National Cancer Institute is paying to test the drug on patients with melanoma and ovarian cancer, and the company recently received approval to expand its trials in the United Kingdom.

Here, Brad Thompson talks to Pharm Exec about how the company got its start, and the virus that he thinks will change cancer care forever.

Where did the idea of using viruses to treat cancer originate?

It's an area of interest now, so there's a lot of dispute about who exactly discovered this. Of course, when something works, everybody then lays claim—success has many mothers, failure is an orphan.

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