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One of the most exciting types of emerging therapy for mesothelioma and other types of cancer is gene therapy. This refers to any treatment strategy that involves using genetic material to target the cancer and can range from targeting the genes of the cancer patient to manipulating genes of viruses and using them to attack and kill cancer cells in tumors.

Gene therapy holds so much promise in treating cancer because it allows doctors to be very specific about targeting cancer cells. While standard treatments, including chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery all target cancer cells, they cannot do so indiscriminately; they also harm healthy cells. Gene therapies can be much more specific, allowing for more precise control of treatment and even presenting possibilities for cancer cures, all without causing many side effects or complications.

What Are Genes and Gene Therapy?

Genes are messages coded into the DNA found in all living cells. Genes represent messages that direct a cell on how to make proteins. These proteins in turn carry out many of the processes and behaviors of cells, from storing sugar for energy to constructing cell membranes, and how to grow and divide. Genes are crucial for all living things, but sometimes they send a message that causes harm, such as genes that cause cells to become cancerous and to grow and divide in an uncontrolled way.

Technology has advanced to the point at which genes can be manipulated. They can be changed, removed, and added to DNA in specific cells to make changes to the cells and the body. Gene therapy is any manipulation of genes and DNA, either in cancer cells, human cells, or third party cells like viruses, to treat or cure an illness. Many of these are being developed to treat mesothelioma and other kinds of deadly cancers.

Inserting Genes

Most types of gene therapy rely on a technique that inserts genes into DNA. Whether that means adding a gene to a cancer cell to make it more effectively destroyed by radiation, or adding genes to a cancer patient’s cells to make chemotherapy more tolerable, the technique used is the same and involves the use of a vector. A gene cannot simply be placed into a section of DNA; a vector is needed to do the job.

A vector is a carrier for the gene and it is usually a virus. Viruses work so well because they are designed to recognize cells and insert genes; this is how they infect and make a person sick. Researchers have been able to deactivate the genes in the virus that cause infection and illness, and instead use them as carriers for desired genes. The genes of the virus are manipulated, the viruses are inserted into the target cells, and the genes are transferred from the virus to the DNA of the targeted cells.

Changing Faulty Genes

Some people develop cancer because of a faulty gene or a missing gene. Gene therapy may be used to replace or change these genes in a patient. This may result in suppression of a tumor, slowed growth of a tumor, prevention of new tumors, or even regression of the progress of cancer. A gene may also be inserted that blocks the message of another gene that is promoting tumor growth.

Gene Therapy and the Immune System

One gene therapy strategy is to alter genes to make the body’s immune system work better and specifically to make it target cancer cells. The cells of the immune system have a natural ability to seek out and target invading cells to be destroyed, but they do not always effectively target and kill cancer cells. Gene therapy can be used to insert genes into the cells of a tumor in order to make them look more like targets to the immune system. A gene may be added to the patient’s immune cells to make them better target cancer cells.

Suicide Genes – Gene Therapy to Activate Drugs

Inserted genes may also be used to help activate drugs. These genes are usually added to the DNA of cancer cells. When the chemotherapy drug reaches the tumor, the gene that was added activates the drug turning it from an inactive to an active substance that only starts to work once it is in the tumor. This helps to better target chemotherapy at a tumor and not healthy cells to prevent side effects. Other genes may be added to the cancer cells to make them more susceptible to chemotherapy or radiation. The inserted genes are called suicide genes because they essentially turn on toxic substances in the cancer cells resulting in the death of those cells.

Viruses as Cancer Cell Killers

Viruses are already important as the vectors used to insert new genes into the DNA of targeted cells. Researchers are also looking to viruses as possible cancer treatments. Virus DNA may be manipulated to focus it on targeting and killing cancer cells only, while leaving healthy cells alone. Instead of using the virus to deliver genes to the cancer cells, the virus is used to directly kill cancer cells. Early trials are using the virus that causes cold sores to target pancreatic cancer and melanoma.

Gene Therapy and Mesothelioma

All research into using gene therapy to target cancer has the potential to result in effective treatments for mesothelioma patients. Some types of gene therapy, however, are being studied for treating specific cancers. Early studies into the use of inserted genes to boost the immune system have shown promise in treating mesothelioma patients. Suicide genes have also been used in clinical trials with pleural mesothelioma patients and show early promises. These studies are on the forefront of mesothelioma research, and while results are positive, much more work needs to be done to develop effective gene therapy treatments that can be used on most patients.

Gene therapy as a general medical treatment for cancer and mesothelioma in particular is exciting, especially for patients. While these treatments are not yet main stream, there are opportunities for patients to get involved in clinical trials that not only help advance the treatments but also help effectively treat them. Gene therapy represents a hopeful new future for cancer treatment and mesothelioma patients.

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