Gene therapy is a new type of procedure that is still in the testing phase. This is why it is known as an alternative and experimental therapy. Essentially, the theory is that by manipulating someone’s genes, diseases can be prevented and treated. The treatment has been very successful, particularly in the treatment of Severe Combined Immune Deficiency (SCID). Success was achieved in 2000 through this treatment, and it then became a focal point of interest for various other conditions, including color blindness, hemophilia, AIDS, and a number of types of cancers, of which mesothelioma is one.

Clinical Mesothelioma Trials

Clinical trials continue to be conducted in gene therapy and its effect on mesothelioma. Chemotherapy and other traditional forms of cancer treatment have had very limited success rates in mesothelioma. In gene therapy, the theory is that if faulty genes can be targeted and repaired, improvements in the condition can be achieved. The difficulty, however, is in finding these genes. Because this is a continuing struggle, this particular type of therapy has not yet been accepted as a viable treatment option, nor is it widely available.

It is a known fact that gene therapy is much safer on healthy cells than chemotherapy. However, it does have various side effects, and complications are common. A number of adverse reactions have been noted, particularly in patients whose immune systems do not respond to the treatment in a positive way. Because of this, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not yet approved this type of therapy.

How Does Gene Therapy Work?

Through gene therapy, physicians aim to repair any issues caused by genes that are defective. Our body is made up of millions of cells, and each of these cells contains a nucleus. This nucleus is an encyclopedia of genetic information, which, in turn, is stored in our DNA. Within our DNA, there are individual segments, some of which pass on vital genetic information when the cell goes through multiplication. These segments are genes.

When asbestos, or another carcinogen, enters the body, it is possible that this causes genes to become damaged, or mutated, which happens within our DNA. This damage can lead to various dramatic and drastic changes, including in protein production. Protein is needed in order for cells and function properly. If proteins can no longer do what they are supposed to do, the cells can start to divide in a rapid and uncontrollable manner, leading to the formation of cancerous tumors.

Through gene therapy, this process of mutation, division, and formation of tumors is disrupted. Furthermore, the treatment is able to remove faulty genes from the body, replacing them instead with healthy ones. In so doing, the outcome of the disease can be improved.

In order for a physician to access the defective gene, patients are usually injected with a virus. These viruses are able to take genes and transport them into the cells. The life cycle of the virus is such that in order to reproduce it must invade a host cell and then inject it with its personal genetic information. The goal of gene therapy is to make sure that this altered genetic information is one that is positive, causing the gene to be repaired or for healthy genes to be reproduced, whereas the defective ones are left to die. Because viruses can be damaging to human health, current tests are looking into non-viral options for delivering the gene, and these include stem cells.

Gene Therapy and Mesothelioma

At present, genetic scientists are trying to find a form of treatment for patients with mesothelioma. Because of the location of tumors in pleural mesothelioma, gene therapy has the potential to become very successful. This is because it is very easy to access the affected area to take biopsies and to determine whether or not treatment is delivering results. It doesn’t really matter where the tumor is located, as the treatment can be effective all over the body. At present, scientists are heartened to see that it makes the body more susceptible to chemotherapy, which means that it could be used as a combination treatment.

One of the most promising types of gene therapy for mesothelioma is known as suicide gene therapy. Here, a virus is created that introduces a gene that produces protein. This gene is also able to turn a non-toxic drug into a method of killing cancer cells. The virus, once genetically modified, is administered to the patient. After a short period of time, a drug that attacks cancerous cells only is administered to the body, and this will get to work in attacking cancerous cells. The University of Pennsylvania Medical Center researched the effectiveness of gene therapy on cancer patients, and they found tremendous benefits. In fact, in most people the severity and size of the tumors was significantly reduced in four of the patients studied, out of a total of 34.

Research is also being conducted into whether cytokines could be used as part of gene therapy. Cytokines are a type of immune system molecules. These are proteins that direct and control the way our immune system responds. The gene therapy treatment ensures that the immune system is able to attack cancerous cells.

Complications and Side Effects of Gene Therapy

Gene therapy continues to be experimental, and this means that there is little knowledge about the long term and side effects of the treatment. There is simply not enough observation of such effects, and there is a significant worry that the viruses may also infect healthy cells. If this happens, then new cancers and other diseases could develop as well.

Those who have tried the treatment have noted a number of uncomfortable, although not threatening, side effects. These include:

• Fever
• Chills
• Vomiting
• Nausea
• Headaches

These are generally temporary side effects, with most people finding relief after only 48 hours. However, it is important that patients are reasonably free of infections before they start gene therapy. This is because infections can make the therapy less effective and it is usually not possible to have multiple treatments.

Clearly, gene therapy has the potential to become something really good, which is why the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute are both very interested in its potential. At present, gene therapy does not appear to offer a cure for mesothelioma. However, there have now been quite a few trials in which the short term benefits have been very impressive, and this alone warrants further investigation.