The herpes virus is being harnessed to combat cancer
The herpes virus is being harnessed to combat cancer (WikiCommons)

A new way of harnessing the herpes virus to destroy cancer which promises to have a "real impact on cure rates" could be available to sufferers in 18 months, said a leading doctor.

Speaking to the Times, Professor Kevin Harrington said that tests of virotherapy had proven a success so far.

"There is a whole wave of drugs in the pipeline and the next decade will be about bringing them to the clinic. They could have a real impact on cure rates," he said.

The American Oncological society has reported positive results from the first series of clinical trials for the new form of treatment.

As part of the study, 400 cancer patients were injected with a genetically modified form of the herpes virus: T-Vec.

Six months later, 16% were in complete or partial remission, compared with only 2% in a control group.

Experts believe that the tests pave the way for the treatment to become widely available.

Because of the nature of cancer cells, viruses replicate easily in them. The herpes virus can be genetically modified not to attack healthy cells.

After the herpes multiplies, the cells burst, triggering an immune reaction in the body that destroys the cancer.

Harrington said that tests carries out at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London by the Institute of Cancer Research on those with head and neck cancer had also proven successful.

94% of the tumours removed after the cancer showed no sign of the cancer and two-thirds of patients were subsequently reported to be cancer free, among them Sir Michael Lockett, whose company organised the Queen's Jubilee river pageant last year.

Harrington is carrying out a new 400-patient study, in which each person taking part will be given four injections of the modified herpes, alongside chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment.

If these prove successful, Harrrington estimates the drugs could be made available in 18 months.

However, virotherapy is expected to prove expensive to carry out. Some have expressed fears of the modified virus becoming deadly and spreading, as in the Will Smith horror film I Am Legend.

"Anyone who has seen the film will know the sort of concern at its most visceral level that you have to deal with, " said Harrington.