Cancer Research UK scientists have developed a treatment that transports ‘tumor busting’ genes selectively to cancer cells.
The technique, which leaves healthy cells unaffected, could offer hope to people with difficult to treat cancers. Although it has so far only been tested in mice, the researchers hope for human trials in 2 years.
Using nanotechnology, the researchers were able to package the anti-cancer genes in very small particles that directed the treatment selectively to tumors in mice so that it was only taken up by cancer cells, leaving healthy cells unharmed.
Once taken up by cancer cells, the genes enclosed in the nanoparticles force the cell to produce proteins that can kill the cancer. In this study, the cells were forced to make a protein which was then visible in whole-body scans of the mice revealing that healthy cells were not affected by the treatment.
This type of technology is particularly exciting for people with cancers that are inoperable because they are close to vital organs, like the brain or lungs. These cancers are often associated with poor survival.
Now scientists have found a particle that can be used to selectively target cancer cells, they hope nanotechnology can be extended to treat cancer that has spread.
Study author Dr. Andreas Schatzlein, Reader in Cancer Pharmacology at the Centre for Cancer Medicines based at the School of Pharmacy, said, “Gene therapy has a great potential to create safe and effective cancer treatments, but getting the genes into cancer cells remains one of the big challenges in this area. This is the first time that nanoparticles have been shown to target tumors in such a selective way, and this is an exciting step forward in the field.”
“Once inside the cell, the gene enclosed in the particle recognizes the cancerous environment and switches on. The result is toxic, but only to the offending cells, leaving healthy tissue unaffected.”
Traditional chemotherapy indiscriminately kills cells in the affected area of the body, which can cause side effects like fatigue, hair loss, or nausea. It is hoped that gene therapy will have fewer associated side effects by targeting cancer cells.
Dr. Lesley Walker, Cancer Research UK’s director of cancer information, said, “These results are encouraging, and we look forward to seeing if this method can be used to treat cancer in people. Gene therapy is an exciting area of research, but targeting genetic changes to cancer cells has been a major challenge. This is the first time a solution has been proposed, so it’s exciting news.”
Illustration: Microsoft clipart.
University of London School of Pharmacy News Release (03/10/09)
Abstract (Cancer Research; 69, 2655 (03/15/09))