Cancer experts in Sheffield have launched a pioneering trial to target a deadly disease caused by asbestos exposure.
The medical specialists at Weston Park Hospital are among only a handful of investigators around the globe examining treatments which could offer hope to patients diagnosed with incurable mesothelioma.
Three patients have so far been given doses of the herpes simplex virus engineered in the laboratory to kill tumours and leave normal cells unharmed.
Once safety checks have been completed, it is hoped the programme can be expanded to discover whether the treatment can extend patients’ lives – or even cure the condition.
Prof Penella Woll, from the Sheffield Experimental Cancer Medicine Centre at Weston Park, said: “We are really desperate for new treatments for mesothelioma.
“For us, it is terrifically exciting and the patients are very engaged in using this to target tumours rather than the blunderbuss approach of chemotherapy.
“This is something that is unique.
“If it does what we hope, it could be a major step forward.”
About 100 patients with the disease are treated in Sheffield every year, mainly people who have worked in heavy industries around South Yorkshire and the north Midlands, although others can be affected by asbestos dust used as insulation in buildings.
The herpes infusion is administered via a chest cavity drain, washing over tumours triggered by mesothelioma.
One of the first patients to take part has been 79-year-old retired headteacher Jack Heaton, from Barnsley, who believes he was exposed to asbestos in the basement of his old primary school.
He said: “They gave me the treatment, they took scans and I was told they were very pleased with the results.
“It seems to have stopped the cancer, although it’s still there.”
Prof Woll said the trial was the ‘most exciting’ of a number of projects aimed at mesothelioma in Sheffield.
Tests are under way to find out if radiotherapy could be effective, while a trial looking at a new type of surgery is planned.