Gene Therapy and the Search For New Cures For Cancer
Gene therapy is the insertion of genes into an individual’s cell and tissues to treat a disease. Although it is still in its infancy, it as already been successful in helping patients in their fight against diseases. The steps of the search can be as simple as 1-2-3 and as exciting as seek and destroy.
First, the doctors need to find the cancer genes and understand how they operate, thus identifying the molecular markers of the cancer. Secondly, you need to find the appropriate drugs to destroy and block off these genes. Thirdly, you need to conduct clinical trials and have a validated report to prove the effectiveness of your drugs to be used against the disease. This is to minimize blundering in the dark and not subject patients to the pain and costs of treatments that they will not benefit from. This 1-2-3 loop is called the translational research and is the method whereby new cures for cancer patients are found and there are still many cancer genes out there waiting to be arrested with this method. Take two common cancers-
Colon and rectal cancers and breast cancer. For Colon and rectal patients, researchers have began to see the relevance of the gene called epidermal growth factor receptor(EGFR). This gene has been found in many other cancers from oral cavity, throat, lung, oesophagus to stomach cancer. The onus is to deal with EGFR and put it under control. For breast cancer, after decades of research into the molecular genetics of this cancer, researchers have identified the genes responsible for the cancer growth, which is the HER2-neu gene, also known as the c-erbB2. This has resulted in the development of an antibody against this cancer gene known as Herceptin or trastuzamab. It has revolutionised the whole treatment of breast cancer especially in women whose tumours carried this gene. Herceptin has also been proven very useful in improving the cure rates for those who sought early treatment.
The risk of relapse following this method of cure has also been reduced. Technology has enabled doctors to identify the importance of molecular markers in finding cures for cancer. This is however, only the first step. Equally important is the ability to do these in clinical laboratories and make the research available to clinic doctors who tend to patients. Unlike back in the 80s, medical oncology meant primarily the use of chemotherapy. And when there were few drugs and doctors basically combined them in cocktails on a trial-and-error basis to see what worked and what did not. Gene therapy has changed all that and reduced the pain while increasing the effectiveness of cures through customising therapies based on the molecular genetics of the cancer.