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Current Uses of Gene Therapy to Treat Cancer

written by: Vikas Vij • edited by: Diana Cooper • updated: 2/19/2011

Current uses of gene therapy to treat cancer are largely experimental in nature, but it appears to be the most promising approach against cancer.

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    Cancer Treatment with Gene Therapy

    Gene therapy is one of the latest and most promising treatment approaches for cancer. Current uses of gene therapy to treat cancer are very limited because it is still an experimental treatment. Medical research is continuing to evaluate the impact of genetic material against cancer in curative and preventative terms.

    It is possible to introduce genetic material into targeted cells with the help of a carrier known as a vector. At present, viruses are the most frequently used vectors for gene therapy. The virus is altered to make it safe for the human body before it is delivered into the affected cells. However, some risk factors with gene therapy still remain.

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    Use of Gene Therapy to Destroy Cancer Cells

    Current uses of gene therapy to treat cancer are still evolving, and any clinical trial that involves gene therapy requires approval from at least two review boards in the United States. Firstly, it must be approved by the scientists’ institution, and secondly it must be approved by the FDA and NIH Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee. Human genetic research is helping to understand the development of cancer at the molecular level. Scientists are using human genes to selectively identify and destroy cancerous cells, such as K-RAS oncogene that has been identified in various types of cancers.

    The abnormal production of K-RAS oncogene can be stopped at the genetic level by integrating an anti-sense gene whose transcript gets attached to the oncogene RNA, destroying its ability to produce protein. Several in-vivo and in-vitro experiments have shown that when an anti-sense K-RAS vector is introduced into the cancerous cells that induce K-RAS production, their tumorigenicity gets reduced.

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    Clinical Trials for Cancer Gene Therapy

    Several clinical trials with gene therapy to treat cancer are underway at various medical research institutions around the world. More than a hundred clinical applications of gene transfer into patients of cancer have been approved in the United States and several other countries. These applications are being tested for both cell marking and therapeutic uses.

    Until now, most of the gene therapy trials on human patients in the United States have been confined to tumors that have proved to be otherwise incurable. This represents a condition where the patient usually has a very short life expectancy of a few weeks or months. Therefore, from a medico-ethical point of view, it is considered to be appropriate to treat such cases with experimental gene therapies.

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    Treatment Approaches with Gene Therapy

    Medical researchers are experimenting with different treatment approaches to test the effectiveness of gene therapy in treating cancer. One of the approaches is to reinforce the strength of healthy cells so that they can successfully fight against the malignant cells. Another approach is to focus on the destruction of malignant cells or retard their proliferation.

    Studies are also underway to evaluate the benefits of gene therapy in enhancing a patient’s immune response to cancer. In this case, scientists use gene therapy to induce the natural ability of the body to fight back against malignant cells. Research is also going on to study the ability of genes to increase the sensitivity of malignant cells against chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

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