The results of a study led by Daniel Anderson, a research associate in Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Cancer Research, demonstrate that scientists have developed a method that improves the ability of biodegradable polymers to perform gene therapy.
The MIT researchers said their technology could lead to safe and effective techniques for gene therapy, which involves inserting new genes into patients' cells to fight diseases such as cancer.
The scientists said gene therapy, while holding great promise, has yet to realize its potential in part because of safety concerns over the conventional technique of using viruses, or vectors, to carry the genes.
The new MIT work focuses on creating gene carriers from synthetic, non-viral materials.
"What we wanted to do is start with something that's very safe -- a biocompatible, degradable polymer -- and try to make it more effective, instead of starting with a virus and trying to make it safer," said Jordan Green, a graduate student in biological engineering and co-author of the paper with former graduate student Gregory Zugates, now at WMR Biomedical, Inc.
Non-viral vectors could prove not only safer than viruses but also more effective in some cases. The polymers can carry a larger DNA payload than viruses, and they may avoid the immune system, which could allow multiple therapeutic applications if needed, said Green.
One promising line of research involves ovarian cancer, where the MIT researchers, in conjunction with Janet Sawicki at the Lankenau Institute for Medical Research, have demonstrated that these polymer-DNA nanoparticles can deliver DNA at high levels to ovarian tumors without harming healthy tissue.
Illustration: Structure of a piece of a biodegradable polymer used for gene delivery. –Jordan Green, MIT.
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