Gene therapy refers to any sort of treatment that can alter a particular gene’s function or structure. The American Cancer Society has called gene therapy one of the most promising treatments for cancer, including mesothelioma, and other diseases that deal primarily with genetic changes. Gene therapy may also have potential as a preventive measure for those who are at risk of developing certain kinds of cancer.
Gene Therapy and Mesothelioma
An individual’s genetic disposition has a lot to do with that person’s health. When a gene delivers flawed instructions to growing cells, it can adversely affect everything from immune system response to normal operation of organs and other systems in the body. More than 4,000 currently known diseases and disorders are caused by faulty genetic signals.
The purpose of gene therapy for mesothelioma and other deadly diseases is to replace faulty genes with genes that work properly. While there are a number of different ways to approach this type of treatment, they all have the same purpose of fixing genetic sequences to work properly.
Starving Cancer Cells
One recent discovery that has led to gene therapy for cancers like mesothelioma is to “starve” cancerous cells.
One big difference between cancer cells and normal cells is the way in which they consume a sugar known as glucose. In a study conducted by Brunel University, researchers found that a vast majority of cancer cells use glucose to drive the cancer’s uncontrolled growth. As a result, the cancer cells produce a protein called PARP 14 that allows them to stay alive longer than normal cells, avoiding apoptosis – or “programmed cell death.”
Researchers are now exploring ways to turn off this extraneous PARP 14 production by limiting the supply of glucose to cancer cells. If they can do so, it may be possible to stop cancer in its tracks altogether!
Another gene therapy technique is to introduce genes into the body that will act as replacements for the genes found in cancer cells. Upon introduction, the new genes become susceptible to anti-cancer medications, and their defense mechanisms become useless, causing them to die. Genes introduced in this way are sometimes called “suicide genes”.
The most common method of introducing suicide genes is through gene-directed enzyme-producing therapy (GDEPT). With this method, genes from a cancer cell are modified using genes from healthy cells. The resulting gene produces enzymes that will kill cancer cells, but which are innocuous to normal cells.
Slowing Tumor Growth
A third way that gene therapy can offer treatment of mesothelioma and other cancers is by replacing faulty genes that allow cancer cells to multiply rapidly and causing them to slow or halt the growth of tumors.
An early way of slowing growth included injecting genetic material into the tumor directly. Another method includes using deactivated virus to target the linings of blood vessels feeding the tumor, which then slow the growth of such tumors or even stop them completely.
The Future of Mesothelioma Gene Therapy
Much research is still being conducted in conjunction with gene therapy and the treatment of cancer. Since cancer is a combination of gene flaws and not just one, gene therapy for cancer patients will almost certainly continue be used in conjunction with common standard therapies, including chemotherapy and radiation.
The February 2008 issue of the German medical journal, Onkologie, featured an article on gene therapy and mesothelioma. It involved the study of the “suicide” gene therapy model, used on mice, and the authors noted “impressive results” and a “significantly prolonged survival” time. Studies like this continue and have been the impetus for more trials combining gene therapy with chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy.
Currently, gene therapy is still experimental and it is only available to cancer patients via clinical trials. Mesothelioma patients interested in participating in these studies should ask their doctor if there are any current trials for which they qualify.