Mesothelioma Treatments

Mesothelioma Gene Therapy

In 2003, the completion of one of the most significant investigative research projects in scientific history was announced. This was the Human Genome Project, which was begun in 1990 by Dr. James D. Watson, who along with the late Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, first discovered the structure of DNA - the biological code that determines virtually everything about a person.

Humans are of course not the only ones to have DNA; it is found in almost every living organism, from single-celled organisms to higher mammals. The exception is viruses, which cause a range of diseases ranging from HIV to the common cold. Although defined as "living," most viruses lack this genetic code and therefore cannot reproduce outside of a host cell; it must enter such a cell and appropriate that cell's genetic machinery in order to do so. It is the reason that viral infections do not respond to antibiotics.

All of this has tremendous implications for the treatment of many diseases, including cancers such as mesothelioma. It is true that certain individuals are genetically predisposed to cancer, and gene therapy research may one day yield an actual vaccine for cancer that will prevent individuals from contracting cancer in the first place. However, most gene therapy today is focused on treatment, either alone or adjuvant with more traditional treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy.

How Gene Therapy Works

To use the personal computer as a metaphor, the DNA is like the body's operating system software (say, Linux or Mac OSX); it determines the body's overall functions and how these are carried out. Genes are like the individual lines of code that make up the software. If there is an error in this code, the result is a defect. Most of these are barely noticeable, but some can be quite serious. These can include dysfunctional senses, as is the case of those who are born blind or deaf, or genetic diseases that are passed along in families, as was the case of 19th-Century British Queen Victoria and her descendants, some of whom suffered from hemophilia.

Medical researchers are currently studying ways in which such genetic defects can be corrected by replacing defective genes. Because this is done at the microscopic level (and the type of nanotechnology that could make such micro-surgery feasible is still in its infancy), the best way to make this replacement is with the use of what is called a vector - a vehicle or carrier.

This is where the use of viruses come into play. Because of the nature of viruses and their reproductive system, they make ideal carriers, or vectors, for gene replacement. A virus is altered at the genetic level, enabling it to carry a replacement for a defective gene. When this specially engineered virus enters the target cell and takes over its reproductive system, it literally beings "rewriting" the body's software - much like an "anti-virus" program rids a computer of spyware, Trojan Horses and the like.

Gene Therapy and Cancer Patients

Considering that untreated or untreatable cancer invariably kills the patient, it is ironic that cancer cells represent a type of immortality. Normally, cells are born, they get old and eventually die like all life forms. This is in their genetic programming; it is called apoptosis, or "cell death." When cells become malignant, this genetic programming is "switched off." The cells continue to multiply in an uncontrolled population explosion. This is what is known as "cancer," and is not unlike urban sprawl or rampant, uncontrolled growth and development on the planet.

Ultimately, it is not the cancer itself that kills the body, but rather what it does to the body's vital organs.

It is also important to understand that cancer cells are not like "foreign" pathogens, such as bacteria or most types of viral infections. They are the body's own cells that have gone haywire. Therefore, what kills cancer cells, such as chemotherapy drugs, also tends to kill healthy cells as effectively. Conversely, drugs that are harmless to healthy cells are ineffective against malignant ones.

The most promising solution currently appears to be the delivery of altered genetic materials to cancer cells that will "rewrite" their biological software in such a way as to make them vulnerable to chemotherapy drugs that are otherwise safe for healthy cells.

Another Approach

One area of cancer research for the past several years has been into how the body's own immune system can be used in order to fight cancer. Here again, the problem lies in the fact that cancer cells are not pathogens; therefore, anti-bodies do not recognize then as such.

Eventually, medical researchers hoped to be able to "train" antibodies to attack cancer cells as if they were a form of bacteria or a viral infection. What seems to be a more likely solution involves deception and the use of specific kinds of proteins, called cytokines, which elicit an immune response. By using these genetically altered viruses to deliver cytokines to targeted cancer cells, antibodies can literally be "tricked" into attacking them.

Pros and Cons of Gene Therapy

The Food and Drug administration has yet to approve such gene therapies for general use; although early experiments have shown great promise, there have been side effects ranging from sniffles, fevers and chills to more serious ones such as stroke and neurological conditions. In addition, the problem of delivering the virus to targeted cancer cells still poses a formidable challenge as well - and making certain that somehow, the correct protein molecules will be produced once they enter the malignant cells.

A recent study undertaken at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center involved targeted gene therapy using a modified virus as a delivery system. Less than 18 percent of the subjects experienced remission of the disease, but those that did experienced substantial relief - and a few remained healthy for several years.

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