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How Could Gene Therapy Cure Cancer?

written by: Rafael•edited by: Paul Arnold•updated: 2/28/2010

Gene therapy may one day rid the world of cancer. Find out more in this article about gene therapy and cancer.

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    Cancer is one of the most devastating diseases of our time. Many different types of cancer are responsible for the deaths of millions of people on a worldwide basis. So, doctors, researchers, and scientists are always looking for new treatments and approaches to diagnose earlier, treat and cure different types of cancer. Gene therapy may one day help to treat and cure cancer.

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    What Is Gene Therapy?

    Sometimes certain genes malfunction and are not expressed correctly. Sometimes specific genes are not present or they are present but so badly damaged that they do not even function correctly. In many of these genetic abnormalities certain cancer types may originate. Gene therapy can be defined as a therapeutic technology that involves inserting genes (DNA) or RNA into cells to replace a faulty gene or to stimulate cells to do things that they were not able to do before.

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    Gene Therapy and Cancer

    Researchers and scientists are working on new approaches to use gene therapy to cure cancer. Although still under development gene therapy could be used some day to treat and cure many different types of cancer. The technology could be used in a number of different ways.

    Stopping the expression of oncogenes. Oncogenes are cancer-promoting genes. They derive from normal genes that have suffered a mutation. An oncogene causes cells to go wild and divide profusely without any control. They can spread to other parts of the body. By inhibiting these oncogenes or their expression, gene therapy could stop cancerous cells in their tracks and mitigate the worst cancer symptoms.

    Replacing abnormal or missing genes. Regular cells have tumor suppressing genes to prevent cancer. The gene p53 is one example of such cancer-suppressing genes. A cell with a faulty p53 gene can develop cancer. By using gene therapy techniques a perfectly working p53 gene could be inserted into a patient's DNA to try to bring cells into control. A recent trial (Hoshino, 2008) using gene therapy with p53 genes (and antibiotics) has shown much promise in human esophageal squamous cell carcinoma.

    Making tumor cells more “destroyable" by the patient’s immune system. The immune system of a person plays an important role in preventing cancer from developing. However, cancer cells are sometimes able to bypass the patient self-defense system. Gene therapy could be used to insert certain genes that may fortify the patient’s immune system so it will be able to properly find and destroy cancer cells.

    Stopping angiogenesis. Angiogenesis, or new blood vessel formation, is essential for tumor development and growth. Gene therapy techniques could add genes to stop this from happening. If blood supply to the tumor is cut, tumors will stop growing or even disappear. A recent review paper (Liu et al. 2006) offers many examples of the use of gene therapy to stop angiogenesis.