Gene Therapy

Advances in understanding and manipulating genes have set the stage for scientists to alter a person's genetic material to fight or prevent disease. Gene therapy is an experimental treatment that involves introducing genetic material (DNA or RNA) into a person's cells to fight disease. Gene therapy is being studied in clinical trials (research studies with people) for many different types of cancer and for other diseases. It is not currently available outside a clinical trial.

Researchers are studying several ways to treat cancer using gene therapy. Some approaches target healthy cells to enhance their ability to fight cancer. Other approaches target cancer cells, to destroy them or prevent their growth. Some gene therapy techniques under study are described below.

  • In one approach, researchers replace missing or altered genes with healthy genes. Because some missing or altered genes (e.g., p53) may cause cancer, substituting “working” copies of these genes may be used to treat cancer.

  • Researchers are also studying ways to improve a patient's immune response to cancer. In this approach, gene therapy is used to stimulate the body's natural ability to attack cancer cells. In one method under investigation, researchers take a small blood sample from a patient and insert genes that will cause each cell to produce a protein called a T-cell receptor (TCR). The genes are transferred into the patient's white blood cells (called T lymphocytes) and are then given back to the patient. In the body, the white blood cells produce TCRs, which attach to the outer surface of the white blood cells. The TCRs then recognize and attach to certain molecules found on the surface of the tumor cells. Finally, the TCRs activate the white blood cells to attack and kill the tumor cells.

  • Scientists are investigating the insertion of genes into cancer cells to make them more sensitive to chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or other treatments. In other studies, researchers remove healthy blood-forming stem cells from the body, insert a gene that makes these cells more resistant to the side effects of high doses of anticancer drugs, and then inject the cells back into the patient.

  • In another approach, researchers introduce “suicide genes” into a patient's cancer cells. A pro-drug (an inactive form of a toxic drug) is then given to the patient. The pro-drug is activated in cancer cells containing these “suicide genes, ” which leads to the destruction of those cancer cells.

  • Other research is focused on the use of gene therapy to prevent cancer cells from developing new blood vessels (angiogenesis).

Many gene therapy clinical trials rely on retroviruses to deliver the desired gene. Other viruses used as vectors include adenoviruses, adeno-associated viruses, lentiviruses, poxviruses, and herpes viruses. These viruses differ in how well they transfer genes to the cells they recognize and are able to infect, and whether they alter the cell's DNA permanently or temporarily. Thus, researchers may use different vectors, depending on the specific characteristics and requirements of the study.

Scientists alter the viruses used in gene therapy to make them safe for humans and to increase their ability to deliver specific genes to a patient's cells. Depending on the type of virus and the goals of the research study, scientists may inactivate certain genes in the viruses to prevent them from reproducing or causing disease. Researchers may also alter the virus so that it better recognizes and enters the target cell.

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References in this section:

Adapted from the National Cancer Institute's PDQ Database: . (Accessed July 2016)