Oncolytic viruses are replication competent, tumor selective and lyse cancer cells. Their potential for anti-cancer therapy is based upon the concept that selective intratumoral replication will produce a potent anti-tumor effect and possibly bystander or remote cell killing, whilst minimizing normal tissue toxicity. Viruses may be naturally oncolytic or be engineered for oncolytic activity, and possess a host of different mechanisms to provide tumor selectivity. Clinical use of live replicating viruses is associated with a unique set of safety issues. Clinical experience has so far provided evidence of limited efficacy and a favourable toxicity profile. The interaction with the host immune system is complex. An anti-viral immune response may limit efficacy by rapidly clearing the virus. However, virally-induced cell lysis releases tumor associated antigens in a ‘dangerous’ context, and limited evidence suggests that this can lead to the generation of a specific anti-tumor immune response. Combination therapy with chemotherapy or radiotherapy represents a promising avenue for ongoing translation of oncolytic viruses into clinical practice. Obstacles to therapy include highly effective non-specific host mechanisms to clear virus following systemic delivery, immune-mediated clearance, and intratumoral barriers limiting virus spread. A number of novel strategies are now under investigation to overcome these barriers. This review provides an overview of the potential role of oncolytic viruses, highlighting recent progress towards developing effective therapy and asks if they are a realistic therapeutic option at this stage.
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