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Gene Therapy for Mesothelioma

Gene Therapy as Cancer Treatment

While originally developed to treat inherited diseases, within the last decade or so, gene therapy has been used to try to fight cancer, including an incurable type caused by exposure to asbestos called mesothelioma.

Suicide Gene Therapy 

With respect to mesothelioma, there are two approaches to gene therapy that have shown some promise in clinical trials.  One form is called “suicide gene therapy,” where genetic material is used to make cancer cells more receptive to chemotherapy drugs that can inhibit the progression of mesothelioma. With suicide gene therapy, a virus is sent to the tumor, infecting only the cancer cells. Once in the tumor, the gene carried by the virus instructs the cancer cells to produce a specific protein that makes the tumor susceptible to a drug that will kill the cancerous mesothelioma cells and leave the healthy cells unharmed.

A clinical trial of suicide gene therapy was conducted at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center that showed promising results.  Out of 34 patients that received the genetically altered virus, four patients showed “considerable tumor regression” while two others had “complete regression that lasted more than seven years.”

Boosting the Immune System

Another form of gene therapy for mesothelioma patients involves boosting the body’s immune system. This form of gene therapy is achieved by introducing genetically altered viruses that bolster cytokines in target (cancer) cells. Cytokines are a type of regulatory protein. The cytokines help the body’s immune system attack the cancer cells.

Since gene therapy involves injecting genetically altered viruses into the patient’s body, the patient may experience symptoms commonly associated with viruses, such as fever, nausea and chills. The FDA requires further investigation of gene therapy to assess the immune system’s response to the viruses used to deliver the genes.      

Challenges with Malignant Mesothelioma

One of the challenges to ensuring a long-term cure from gene therapy is that malignant mesothelioma involves rapidly dividing cancerous cells. The nature of such rapid cancer cell division  makes infusing every cell with the virus difficult. Despite the apparent short-term benefits of gene therapy that have been observed, further research is required before gene therapy procedures are approved for widespread public use.