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‘Suicide’ gene therapy to treat cancer

A new gene therapy using the suicide gene has been developed which causes cancer cells to self- destruct.

The therapy has specifically been designed to modify prostate cancer cells and causes the tumour cells in the patient’s body to attack and self-destruct, leading to scientists giving it the name, ‘suicide’ gene therapy.

US scientists and cancer specialists from Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas upon conducting their research found that people with prostate cancer that were treated with the suicide gene therapy were 20% more likely to survive than others with the same cancer that weren’t given the treatment.

The study shows that the therapy when combined with radiotherapy treatment is a promising treatment for prostate cancer. However the scientists in charge of the large-scale research project are in agreement that more research is required to judge its effectiveness.

The study nevertheless marks a huge step forward in the battle against prostate cancer, which is a debilitating disease that affects 41,000 men in the UK every year.

When a person has any form of cancer, the cancer cells aren’t usually recognised because they grow from normal healthy cells and so the cancerous cells continue to grow and proliferate, often to the point where they cover large organs of the body which in most cases is fatal. This therapy involves the genetic modification of cancer cells which causes the patient’s own immune system to attack them. A virus is used as a carrier to transport the suicide gene therapy directly into the tumour cells after which the patient’s own body does the rest.

Dr Brian Butler, from Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas, said it could change the way that cancer is treated.

“We may be able to inject the agent straight into the tumour and let the body kill the cancer cells.

“Once the immune system has knowledge of the bad tumour cells, if they pop up again, the body will know to kill them.”

Kevin Harrington, professor of biological cancer therapies at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, is impressed with the results but said that more research is still needed. “We would need a randomised trial to tell if this treatment is better than radiotherapy alone.

“The viruses used in this study cannot reproduce. Next generation viral therapies for cancer can selectively replicate in cancer cells, something that can kill the cancer cell directly and also help spread the virus to neighbouring cancer cells.

“It would be interesting to see this approach used with viruses that could reproduce to see if it makes for a more effective treatment.”

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