A half-hour infusion of high-dose measles virus gave Stacy Erholtz, of Pequot Lakes, an awful headache and a 105-degree fever.
But within 36 hours a golfball-size plasmacytoma tumor on her forehead was gone. "So I knew it was working," said Erholtz, who had entered the study after running out of conventional treatment options in a 10-year battle with cancer.
The early encouraging results from the Mayo Clinic study have drawn worldwide media attention, as it appears to show that themeasles virus can be designed to infect and kill multiple-melanoma cancer cells throughout the body.
The treatment will move on to further study and remains about four years away from FDA approval if other patients have similar results.
The Mayo findings also may create a new push to fund "virotherapy" research against many forms of cancer, said the study's lead author at Mayo, Dr. Stephen Russell.
"I hope that this is a call to arms right here, because we've never known before that this was possible…while it's been clear that it can work in mice, it's never been known that it could work in humans to eliminate disseminated cancer using a virus," Russell said in a Post-Bulletin interview.
Besides the tumor on her forehead, Erholtz had four tumors elsewhere in her body and diffuse involvement of her bone marrow, Russell said.
"That's about as disseminated as a cancer can be — and it went away completely," Russell said.
The potential for adding virotherapy to the tools available against cancer, has brought a wave of media attention to Russell and his team. He spent much of Thursday responding to interview requests from major U.S. and international news organizations, including CNN and the BBC.
The results in this single study participant, he said, show "it's worth pulling out all the stops, not just with our virus, but other people who are developing viruses, they need to do the same thing."
Mayo researchers used a very high dose of the measles virus, which was targeted to seek out multiple myeloma cancer cells and kill them without killing healthy cells.
They have also learned to focus, for the study, on multiple myeloma patients who lack antibodies that would otherwise attack the measles virus. They lack the antibodies because long-term cancer treatment can erase the immune system.
In the case of virotherapy, that's a good thing.
Virotherapy researchers elsewhere should seek ways to circumvent the body's antibodies, such as by changing the coating on the virus so that the body doesn't recognize it as an invader, said Russell, one of 14 authors from Mayo listed in a Mayo Clinic Proceedings articlethat describes the study.
Russell and his team at Mayo plan aPhase II study, and he hopes it will take less than two years to complete depending on the response rate. If a high enough percentage of study participants respond well to treatment, it will be easier to attract patients.
The Mayo team will need to follow all the patients from Phase II for at least six months before proceeding to a pivotal Phase III trial, the one that, if successful, could lead to FDA approval of the therapy for widespread use against multiple myeloma.
The whole point is to find out "how often does it work and for how long does it work," Russell said.
Health reporter Jeff Hansel writes the Pulse on Health column every Monday. Follow him on Twitter @JeffHansel.