A new gene therapy technique has been developed to modify prostate cancer cells so that the body of a prostate cancer patient attacks and kills those cells.
The technique will essentially cause tumor cells to self-destruct, giving the method the name "suicide gene therapy." The research, according to those behind it, found a 20 percent improvement in survival for patients suffering from prostate cancer five years after treatment.
"We may be able to inject the agent straight into the tumor and let the body kill the cancer cells," said Dr. Brian Butler, from the Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas, in an interview with BBC. "Once the immune system has knowledge of the bad tumor cells, if they pop up again, the body will know to kill them."
The method involves the cancer cells of the patient being genetically modified so that they signal the immune system of the patient to attack them. The body usually doesn't recognize cancer cells as a threat because of the fact that they evolved from normal cells.
The treatment is done using a virus that carries the therapy into tumor cells, resulting in the cells self-destructing, which alerts the immune system to launch an attack.
More Research Needed
According to observers, however, while the results are very promising, more tests are needed.
"We would need a randomized trial to tell if this treatment is better than radiotherapy alone," recommended Kevin Harrington of The Institute of Cancer Research, London. Harrington is also professor of biological cancer therapies.
Next-generation viral therapies for cancer, Harrington said, can "selectively replicate" in cancer cells. These can zero in and attack the cancer cell but also help "spread the virus to neighboring cancer cells."
The experiment could also be used with a virus that can reproduce, which could make it more effective.
"It would be interesting to see this approach used with viruses that could reproduce to see if it makes for a more effective treatment," Harrington added.
The research was conducted with two groups of 62 patients: one group received the therapy twice and another one received it three times. The group that received the therapy three times had more aggressive cancer.
After five years, survival rates were 97 percent for the group that received two doses and 94 percent for the group that received three. This shows an improvement of between 5 and 20 percent.