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Gene therapy is an emerging treatment for mesothelioma and other cancers that holds exciting possibilities. Gene therapy uses genetic material against cancer and includes targeting. This therapy uses the genes of a cancer patient directly or manipulates genes of viruses, using them to attack and kill cancer cells.
Gene therapy holds promise in treating cancer because it targets cancer cells directly. While standard treatments target cancer cells, they do so indiscriminately, harming healthy cells as well. Gene therapies are more specific, allowing more precise treatment control. This presents possibilities for both treatments and cures, all without many side effects or complications.
What Are Genes and Gene Therapy?
Genes are messages coded into DNA found in living cells. Genes tell a cell how to make proteins, which in turn carry out cell functions. These functions include storing sugar for energy and constructing cell membranes. DNA also tells a cell how to grow and divide. Although genes are crucial for all living things, when they don’t work right growth and cell division become unhealthy.
Advances in technology now allows genes to be manipulated. Genes can be changed, removed, and added to DNA in specific cells, altering the cells and the body. Gene therapy is any manipulation of genes and DNA in cancer cells, human cells, or third party cells like viruses, to treat an illness. Many proposed genetic treatments are aimed at mesothelioma and other deadly cancers.
Most gene therapy methods insert genes into existing DNA. This process could involve adding adding a gene to a cancer cell to make it more vulnerable to radiation. Another method is the addition of genes to a cancer patient’s cells to make chemotherapy more tolerable. Either technique involves the use of a vector, usually a modified virus, to insert new information into the DNA.
Typically. a vector is a virus used to carry the new gene. Wild viruses hack into healthy cells and insert new genes. This is how they infect organisms and cause illness. Researchers have been able to deactivate the genes in the virus that cause infection and illness. Instead, the viruses are used to carry desirable genes. First, the genes of the virus are manipulated. Then the modified viruses are inserted into the target cells. Finally, 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 or missing gene. Gene therapy may replace or change these genes in a patient, thus suppressing or slowing tumor growth. A gene can also be inserted that blocks the message of another gene that promotes tumor growth.
Gene Therapy and the Immune System
One gene therapy strategy alters genes in order to boost the body’s immune system. Cells of the immune system seek and attack invading cells. However, they do not always recognize and kill cancer cells because they originate inside the patient rather than invading from outside. Gene therapy can insert genes into tumor cells, making them more visible to the immune system. A gene may also be added to the patient’s immune cells to make them target cancer more effectively.
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 added gene activates the drug, turning it from an inactive to an active substance. This means the drug only begins working once it is inside the tumor. This improves the effectiveness of the drug, protects healthy cells, and prevents harmful side effects. Other genes may be added to cancer cells to make them more susceptible to chemotherapy or radiation. Such genes are nicknamed suicide genes because they activate toxins in the cancer cells and cause them to die.
Viruses as Cancer Cell Killers
Viruses are already important as vectors. Researchers are also considering viruses as possible cancer treatments themselves. Virus DNA may be manipulated to make it kill only cancer cells, 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
Gene therapy research could result in effective treatments for mesothelioma patients. Although some types of gene therapy are aimed at specific cancers, early studies show promise for mesothelioma treatment. Suicide genes have also been used in clinical trials with pleural mesothelioma patients. While early results are positive, more work is necessary to develop effective gene therapy treatments.
Gene therapy is an exciting development in cancer treatment, especially for suffering patients. While these treatments are not mainstream, there are opportunities for patients in clinical trials. These clinical trials help patients directly, yet also contribute to the development of future treatments. Gene therapy represents a hopeful new future for cancer treatment in general and mesothelioma patients in particular.
Page Medically Reviewed and Edited by Anne Courtney, AOCNP, DNP
Anne Courtney has a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree and is an Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse Practitioner. She has years of oncology experience working with patients with malignant mesothelioma, as well as other types of cancer. Dr. Courtney currently works at University of Texas LIVESTRONG Cancer Institutes.