[MOL] Head and Neck Cancers... [01870] Medicine On Line

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[MOL] Head and Neck Cancers...

WASHINGTON, July 31 (Reuters) - A virus that has been genetically engineered
to home in on and destroy cancer cells has shown strong and lasting effects
against tumors in patients when combined with standard chemotherapy,
researchers said on Monday.

They said 25 out of 30 patients with head and neck cancer saw their tumors
shrink after they were treated with Onyx Pharmaceuticals Inc.'s <<A
HREF="aol://4785:ONXX">ONXX.O</A>> ONYX-015 along with chemotherapy.

Eight tumors disappeared, Dr. Fadlo Khuri and colleagues at M.D. Anderson
Cancer Center in Houston, working with teams in Britain, wrote in the journal
Nature Medicine.

"ONYX-015 may be able to sensitize infected and uninfected cells to killing
by chemotherapy," they wrote.

"It is very encouraging because this is the first time there has been a Phase
II trial -- a trial with more than just a few patients in it -- where the
tumors have gone away in a significant number and they haven't come back,"
gene therapy pioneer Dr. William French Anderson of the University of
Southern California said in a telephone interview.

"There are lots of Phase I trials where you get tumors to go away but they
come back."

Phase I trials are only to find out if a treatment is safe and involve very
few people. Phase II trials involve more people but volunteers are often
critically ill because safety is still being assessed. Phase III trials
involve a larger number of people and are the final phase aimed at
determining whether a treatment or drug actually works.

Every year, 500,000 people worldwide are diagnosed with cancer of the head
and neck, and about 30 percent of them die. Such cancers, heavily associated
with the use of alcohol and tobacco, are treated at first with surgery,
radiation therapy or both.

But tumors come back in about a third of patients. When this happens, the
outlook is grim.

Doctors have tried chemotherapy, but it makes patients ill and does not seem
to help them live any longer.

Gene therapy is a possible new approach.

Anywhere between 45 and 70 percent of head and neck tumor cells have
mutations in a gene known as p53, which, when normal, helps repair
cancer-causing damage.

ONYX-015 is an adenovirus, a relative of common cold viruses, that has been
genetically engineered to attack cells that lack normal p53.

This makes it technically a gene therapy drug, although unlike other gene
therapy approaches ONYX-015 does not repair or replace a faulty gene,
Anderson said.

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