Terminally ill cancer patients from Europe and America are travelling to China to receive a new gene-based drug, the world's first commercially available gene therapy treatment. Chinese biotech firm SiBiono Genetech launched the drug in January, initially for the treatment of head and neck squamous cancers (a type of skin cancer). The treatment is now also being used to tackle lung and stomach cancers, according to an article published in the Sunday Telegraph magazine. Around 400 patients, 20 of them from abroad, have now received eight-week courses of Gendicine, at a cost of £1,800.
The new therapy uses a known anti-cancer gene called p53, which makes a protein that triggers the self-destruction of cancer cells. In many tumours, p53 is faulty or inactive, so the cancer cells escape death and continue to multiply. Using a virus to carry the therapeutic gene, SiBiono researchers tested the treatment on patients with nasopharyngeal cancer, which affects the upper part of the throat. In the largest trial, 120 patients were given either radiotherapy only, or Gendicine plus radiotherapy. Those given Gendicine received injections of the p53 gene directly into the tumour, once a week for eight weeks. In sixty-four per cent of the patients, the tumour regressed completely - three times the number of patients treated using radiotherapy only.
According to scientist Peng Zhaohui, who helped develop Gendicine, the gene therapy treatment represents 'the future for treating cancer patients'. And, unlike some other forms of experimental gene therapy, there is no evidence of any serious side effects. One of the patients successfully treated is Polish-American businessman Arthur Winiarski, after being diagnosed with terminal squamous cell carcinoma. His tumour required Gendicine treatment followed by surgery, because it was so large. 'They inject the drug into the tumour and it goes bananas: it invades itself and commits suicide', he said. 'I came here in desperation and they treated me like a king', he added.
Peng stressed that there was still work to be done, but that the team was proud of what it had achieved. 'This is no overnight success. It has taken 15 years of development and several years of clinical trials before we have reached this stage', he said. SiBiono has apparently held 'preliminary discussions' with Western pharmaceutical companies about manufacturing and selling the drug abroad.