Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) carries a dismal prognosis, with advanced disease being resistant to both radiotherapy and conventional cytotoxic drugs, whilst anti-angiogenic drugs are marginally efficacious. Oncolytic viruses (OVs) offer the promise of selective cancer therapy through direct and immune-mediated mechanisms. The premise of OVs lies in their preferential genomic replication, protein expression and productive infection of malignant cells. Numerous OVs are being tested in preclinical models of HCC, with good evidence of direct and immune-mediated antitumour efficacy. Efforts to enhance the performance of these agents have concentrated on engineering OV cellular specificity, immune evasion, enhancing anti-tumour potency and improving delivery. The lead agent in HCC clinical trials, JX-594, a recombinant Wyeth strain vaccinia virus, has demonstrated evidence for significant benefit and earned orphan drug status. Thus, JX-594 appears to be transcending the barrier between novel laboratory science and credible clinical therapy. Relatively few other OVs have entered clinical testing, a hurdle that must be overcome if significant progress is to be made in this field. This review summarizes the preclinical and clinical experience of OV therapy in the difficult-to-treat area of HCC.
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