Viruses being used to help cure disease

Idea is to use one illness to attack another

By Haley Hernandez - Health Reporter

HOUSTON - Matt Futer's hobby is working on his family's car.

"I love to fiddle around and do my little things, and that keeps me very happy," Futer said.

The Magnolia, Texas, resident is one of, if not the longest living survivor of glioblastoma.

Ten years ago, Futer was rushed to Houston Methodist Hospital when doctors saw a tumor occupying the majority of his left lobe.

"He would actually never be able to speak or understand again, which is a pretty useless existence," Dr. David Baskin explained of what would happen if they tried to remove the tumor. "Traditionally, a patient like this would be hopeless."

Baskin said that patients with this kind of tumor typically live about 15 months, which means that there was almost nothing to lose when he began treating Futer.

"I'm not looking for a new treatment that's going to extend life three months. That's hardly worth it. The treatment is nasty, it makes you sick, they may not be a very good three months," Baskin said. "I want something that's going to hit a home run."

Baskin tried something revolutionary. He injected Futer with a version of the herpes virus. The idea is to use one illness to attack another. This one-two punch is a type of gene therapy.

Link: Houston Methodist's site on pituitary tumors

"A gene therapy is like a Trojan horse. You get something to bring something into the brain, or into the tumor, that the tumor lets in, and then once it's in, you turn on a switch of some sort and kill the tumor," Baskin said.

The patient will not get herpes, but with part of the herpes DNA inside the tumor, doctors have way to destroy it, he said.

"We wait a little bit of time and the virus spreads through the brain, and then we give the patient Valtrex. Valtrex is a drug for cold sores, which is herpes type 1," Baskin said. "The patient doesn't have herpes in his brain, but he's got that DNA that the drug recognizes."

For months after the treatment, Futer's brain would swell, but the tumor would shrink, buying him time but putting his brain through a beating.

"He started to get better, speech started to get better, but his MRI looked worse," Baskin said. "There was more swelling, there was more extension of all of these abnormal areas of the brain and everybody was saying, 'What are we going to do about that? Should you go back and operate?' I said no. If we believe in the research we're doing, this should be the immune system now, the second punch."

He stayed the course, and Futer's tumor disappeared. By the five-year mark, Futer had absolutely no tumor left. Although he's unable to work today, he calls his life a miracle.

"I've made it this far. How much further can I go?" Futer asked. "Well, we'll see."

He has had some health complications, but as far as Baskin is concerned, Futer is a 10-year brain cancer survivor.

Unfortunately, the treatment does not work in all patients. The reason why remains a mystery.

While researchers investigate who is a candidate for this treatment, they're are exploring other viruses (like HIV) to use against cancer.

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