David Stojdl and his team are trying a different way to treat brain tumours. Their lab has custom-built an oncolytic virus biotherapy specifically for the treatment of the devastating brain cancer Glioblastoma multiforme (GBM). The Farmington virus kills brain cancer cells but leaves normal healthy tissue intact, and is one of the only oncolytic viruses in the world that can be safely injected at high doses into the brain. For their Brain Canada-funded project, they have re-designed the Farmington virus with an immunotherapeutic payload that triggers a patient’s own immune system to fight their brain tumour.

Dr. Stojdl has assembled a team of both basic and clinician scientists who are world leaders in the field of oncolytic virotherapy and brain cancer and they have already been successful in bringing other oncolytic viruses to clinical trials. This new project is uniquely positioned to succeed in its goal of bringing this technology to Phase I/IIa trials, and ultimately vastly improve the outlook of GBM patients in Canada. Since their project started, they have shown that the new Farmington virus immunotherapy attacks brain tumours on multiple levels: first, it engages and boosts pre-existing immune cells to unprecendented levels against cancer cell targets. This also establishes long-lived immune cells that can perform immune surveillance to prevent future tumour recurrence. Secondly, the Farmington virus acts as a beacon to guide immune cells to the tumour site.

Thirdly, Farmington virus supports these T cells as they kill cancer cells by releasing the brake that restricts their activity. By placing treated mice into an MRI machine, researchers can actually watch the virus shrinking large, aggressive brain tumours. This tumour-fighting ability is directly linked to the way they have engineered the virus. The next steps are to move this promising virus immunotherapy into patients.

The team is already at the forefront of designing and producing rhabdovirus vectors for clinical trial: they currently have two ongoing virus clinical trials for other cancer indications in Ottawa and across Canada. The size of the immune response that they have seen with their new Farmington virus platform is bigger than anything previously described in the cancer vaccine field. Consequently, this technology holds great promise for improving the outlook of Canadians with aggressive, devastating brain tumours.

“The support our lab has received from Brain Canada, together with the Canadian Cancer Society and BioCanRx, has allowed us to expand our Farmington virus project to incorporate multiple research streams focused on designing a single robust, multi-modal virus platform to treat brain cancer. This includes bringing new research collaborators on board to create new ways of testing and validating our immunotherapy within the research setting. Ultimately, this support has put us in a very strong position to bring our immune-stimulating virus technology to the point of clinical testing.”

— David Stojdl, Ph.D. Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario