A new technique, published last week in the journal Cancer Research, has suggested an alternative approach to destroying cancer cells. Carried out in London, UK, by scientists at Cancer Research UK (CRUK), the work is the first anti-cancer therapy based on nanotechnology. Currently showing promising signs in mice, the method offers hope if it can be successfully translated to humans.
Gene therapy involves the delivery of genes of known function into living cells, thereupon becoming 'active' and producing their protein product. The aim is to restore health in a specific way, like providing resistance to a particular virus, or destroying a dysfunctional cell.
However significant obstacles must be overcome in order to achieve such a feat, in particular delivery of therapeutic genes to a specific cell-type, rather than to any cell in the body. This is especially important for an anti-cancer therapy, if it is to offer an improvement over chemotherapy, which indiscriminately kills any cell in the affected region.
Dr Andreas Schatzlein, of the School of Pharmacy in London and lead researcher on the paper, said: 'Once inside the cell, the gene enclosed in the particle recognises the cancerous environment and switches on. The result is toxic, but only to the offending cells, leaving healthy tissue unaffected. We hope this therapy will be used to treat cancer patients in clinical trials in a couple of years'.
Also reported last week was a Canadian-lead report, published in the journal Nature Genetics, identifying eight genes that are implicit in the development of a common children's brain tumour. The study, hailed as 'precedent-setting', screened the DNA from tumours in 800 children worldwide affected by medulloblastoma, a highly malignant cancer that arises in the cerebellum. Intriguingly, these same eight are known to direct the development of growth in embryonic stem cells.
'Our data support the idea that the tumour is coming from progenitor cells, that is they're half way to becoming a mature cell', said Dr Michael Taylor, a paediatric neurosurgeon at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, and senior author on the paper.
Dr Mick Bhatia, director of the McMaster Cancer and Stem Cell Research Institute in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, called the finding fantastic. 'This paper is fascinating, and it raises the question - do we have chemotherapy agents to target these genes?'