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Gene Therapies Show Promise in Cancer

Experimental Drug That Targets Tumors at Their Roots Also Shows Signs of Success
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

April 18, 2007 (Los Angeles) -- Researchers are reporting early success using gene-based therapies to combat cancers ranging from those of lung and skin to those of the breast and prostate.

Meanwhile, other scientists say that an experimental drug designed to put the molecular brakes on the growth of tumor-feeding blood vessels shows promise in people with brain cancer.

While the work is still in its earliest stages, the approaches show great promise, says William J. Nelson, MD, a professor of oncology at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore who was not involved with the research.

"We're just beginning to explore their full potential," he tells WebMD.

The research was discussed at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research.

'Smart Bomb' Against Prostate Cancer

Researchers at Columbia University say they have designed a novel viral-based gene therapy that blasts through the body, targeting both primary and distant tumor cells, while leaving normal cells unscathed.

Once at its target, the virus replicates and produces a massive amount of a cancer-killing compound, says researcher Paul B. Fisher, PhD, a professor of clinical pathology.

Early results suggest the approach is working. When injected into 15 mice with prostate cancer that resisted normal cancer drugs, the treatment eradicated all signs of cancer, essentially producing a cure.

An earlier version of the therapy worked "fairly well" in a study of people with multiple solid tumors, Fisher says.

There were signs that the cancer cells were committing cell suicide, and five of the eight people studied are still alive, he tells WebMD.

The improved treatment appears to be "a much more intelligent smart bomb" that can only replicate in tumor cells, Fisher says. The treatment also worked in animals with skin and breast cancer.

Nelson comments, "The idea of harnessing the innate power of viruses to infect cells, reproduce many times and destroy the cancer cell in the process and then move on to the next cancer cell is a great therapeutic goal."

Gene Therapy Targets Lung Cancer

Researchers at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston are trying a different tactic, packaging a cancer-suppressing gene in a fat-based coating for protection.

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