Doctors use polio virus to save woman from cancer

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DURHAM, North Carolina (WNCN) – A pioneering doctor at Duke Hospital went to radical lengths to save the life of a then 20-year-old college student from South Carolina, stricken with one of the most aggressive forms of brain tumors.

Stephanie Lipscomb’s mom noticed something was wrong with her daughter in June 2011.

“We couldn’t get rid of the headaches no matter what we tried,” Lipscomb said. She went to a local hospital to get it checked out, but what doctors found was completely unexpected.

“It was Glioblastoma, stage four,” Lipscomb said. “This isn’t supposed to happen to me. I’m only 20.”

Lipscomb was working on her nursing degree when doctors removed the tumor. “They said I had five years to live even though they had removed 98 percent of the tumor,” Lipscomb said.

Dr. Matthias Gromeier, Associate Professor in the Department of Neurosurgery at Duke Medical Center, said “Stephanie Lipscomb was originally diagnosed with a form of brain tumor, Glioblastoma, that is unfortunately by far the most common type of brain tumor an also the most lethal.”

Lipscomb’s tumor returned in April 2012 despite radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and the surgery to remove the tumor.

Gromeier said options are limited if a tumor returns because the tumor did not respond to available cancer treatment.

Lipscomb’s mother, Kelli Lusk, knew options were limited. “She couldn’t have anymore radiation. She had all the radiation she could’ve had,” Lusk said.

At this point, Gromeier suggested something radical; killing her cancer cells with the poliovirus. He discovered back in 1998 that the virus can attack other cancer cells, but had to research and test the theory for the last decade. During that time Dr. Gromeier and his team had engineered a non-lethal version of the poliovirus.

“What I discovered many years ago is that the poliovirus receptor, which is responsible for allowing the poliovirus to enter some of our cells, is actually abnormally present in many if not all human cancers,” Gromeier explained. “Which means the poliovirus can infect most human cancer cells.”

Gromeier said that the engineered polio virus is selective for the tumor and cannot harm the normal brain. He explained researchers have long thought about using viruses to fight cancers but said that the medical community’s understanding of viruses was limited back then.

Lipscomb’s brain responded to the engineered polio virus just the way Gromeier had hoped.

“We have seen her tumor shrink,” Gromeier said. But he stresses that this is not a cure and that more research needs to be done.

“It could come back,” Lipscomb said. “But the doctors are very optimistic that it won’t.”

Now at 22, Lipscomb has a chance to finish her nursing degree and get her life back on track. Doctors say she is the first person in the world to receive this treatment. Since then eight other patients with Glioblastoma have been treated with the poliovirus as well, at Duke Hospital.

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