First cancer patient treated with a new experimental viral immunotherapy combination in a clinical trial

April 26, 2017

The Ottawa Hospital and Hamilton Health Sciences have begun a clinical trial to determine if an experimental therapy that combines two viruses and a drug may be able to treat non-small cell lung cancer. This approach is designed to stimulate the immune system to recognize and attack cancer cells while also killing the cancer directly. It is considered a kind of immunotherapy.

The first trial participant was recently treated at Hamilton Health Sciences. An additional 54 patients are expected to be enrolled in the trial and treated in Hamilton and Ottawa as well as other sites.

“In recent years, immunotherapy has shown great promise in treating certain kinds of cancer, but we’re still at the early stages of understanding and optimizing this approach.” said Dr. Garth Nicholas, medical oncologist and trial leader at The Ottawa Hospital, and assistant professor at the University of Ottawa. “We hope that this new combination of immunotherapies will make a difference for people with lung cancer.”

“Lung cancer is the most common kind of cancer in Canada, with more than 28,000 new diagnoses each year,” said trial leader Dr. Rosalyn Juergens, oncologist at Hamilton Health Sciences and associate professor of oncology at McMaster University. “We’ve come a long way in improving our patients’ survival rates and outcomes, but we can do more. Immunotherapy is the leading edge of a new wave of cancer treatment – we’re excited about the potential that it offers to patients with this devastating disease.”

Experimental therapy combines two viruses with immunotherapy drug

The experimental viral therapy being tested is called MG1-MAGEA3 and uses two engineered viruses that were jointly developed by Dr. David Stojdl (Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, University of Ottawa), Dr. Brian Lichty (McMaster University) and Dr. John Bell (The Ottawa Hospital, University of Ottawa), and their respective research teams and colleagues.

The two viruses used are MG1MA3, which is derived from a virus called Maraba that was first isolated from Brazilian sandflies, and AdMA3, which is derived from a common cold virus called adenovirus. Both of these viruses have been engineered to stimulate an immune response against cancer cells that express a protein called MAGE-A3. The Maraba virus also achieves an extra layer of anti-cancer activity by replicating inside many kinds of cancer cells and killing them directly.

The trial combines these two viruses with a drug called pembrolizumab, which Health Canada approved for the treatment of cancer in 2016. Pembrolizumab stimulates an immune response against cancer cells by targeting a protein called PD-1.

Participating in viral therapy trials

Patients at The Ottawa Hospital and Hamilton Health Sciences who wish to participate in viral therapy trials should speak with their oncologist.

MG1-MAGEA3 is also currently being tested in a clinical trial for people with breast cancer, non-small cell lung cancer and esophageal cancer.

The Ottawa Hospital has developed answers to frequently asked questions about viral therapy for cancer.

Trial sponsor Turnstone Biologics can answer questions at 613-421-8930, ext. 400.

Partners and acknowledgements

This trial is primarily funded and sponsored by Turnstone Biologics, a company co-founded by Drs. Lichty, Bell and Stojdl. Turnstone also made an announcement about the trial launch today. Additional funding partners include BioCanRx and the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR).

Many organizations have supported the research that led to this trial, including The Ottawa Hospital Foundation, CHEO Foundation, Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, Canadian Cancer Society, Terry Fox Research Institute, Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation, Canada Foundation for Innovation, Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation, Hair Donation Ottawa, Angels of Hope, BioCanRx, Pancreatic Cancer Canada, NAV Canada and several philanthropic donors.

Health Canada, the regulatory body that oversees the use of drugs in Canada, has allowed the use of these viruses in combination with the drug pembrolizumab in this trial. The trial has been reviewed and accepted by the Ontario Cancer Research Ethics Board (OCREB) which also has approved the media release.

Media contacts


  • Photos of Dr. Nicholas, Dr. Bell and graphic of the MG1MA3 virus
  • Video of Dr. Bell discussing his overall research program

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