Viral therapy for cancer: Frequently asked questions from patients and families

October 1, 2019

What is viral therapy for cancer? 

Viral therapy for cancer, also called oncolytic viral therapy or viral immunotherapy, makes use of viruses to treat cancer.

Typically we think of viruses as tiny bugs that infect our body and cause diseases like the flu, but in this case, viruses are modified to infect and kill cancer cells without harming healthy, normal cells. These viruses can also stimulate the body’s own immune system to recognize and attack cancer cells, which makes them a kind of immunotherapy.

Researchers are studying many different kinds of viral therapies for cancer.

How well do viral therapies work? 

Viral therapies have shown promise in laboratory studies of cancer. Some viral therapies have also shown promise in human clinical trials, but more research is needed. There is currently only one viral therapy approved for use in the U.S. and Europe, called Imlygic (also called talimogene laherparepvec or T-VEC). It is not yet approved it Canada, but it may be available through clinical trials.

What research is The Ottawa Hospital doing on viral therapy for cancer? 

Researchers at The Ottawa Hospital have discovered and developed several viral therapies for cancer. Some are derived from a virus called Maraba that was first isolated from Brazilian sandflies. Others are derived from the Vaccinia virus which has been used in vaccines.

Some of these viruses are at the laboratory research stage while others have reached the human clinical testing stage.

Some of these viruses are being developed in partnership with Turnstone Biologics, a company co-founded by Drs. John Bell (The Ottawa Hospital, University of Ottawa), David Stojdl (CHEO, University of Ottawa and Brian Lichty (McMaster University).

I have cancer. How can I try viral therapy? 

Viral therapy is not available as a standard treatment in Canada. It is only available through clinical trials at a small number of hospitals. These trials can only enroll a small number of patients with specific kinds of cancer at specific stages of disease. This means most people with cancer will not be able to participate.

Your cancer specialist (oncologist) can provide more information about clinical trials of viral therapies and other experimental treatments. You can also search for clinical trials on websites such as:

Please see the Turnstone Biologics website for information about their clinical trials.

About The Ottawa Hospital

The Ottawa Hospital is one of Canada’s largest learning and research hospitals with over 1,100 beds, approximately 12,000 staff and an annual budget of over $1.2 billion. Our focus on research and learning helps us develop new and innovative ways to treat patients and improve care. As a multi-campus hospital, affiliated with the University of Ottawa, we deliver specialized care to the Eastern Ontario region, but our techniques and research discoveries are adopted around the world. We engage the community at all levels to support our vision for better patient care.

Media Contact

Jennifer Ganton
Director, Communications and Public Relations
Ottawa Hospital Research Institute
Office: 613-798-5555 x 73325