Gene therapy

Gene therapy is a new type of treatment, which is still being developed and currently only available for cancer treatment through clinical trials.

It uses genes to treat or prevent disease. Any type of treatment that can change a gene's structure or function is considered gene therapy. Since cancer may be a disease of genetic changes, gene therapy has great promise in prevention and treatment.

The most common form of gene therapy involves inserting a normal gene to replace an abnormal one. Gene transfer is a new treatment that introduces new genes into a cancerous cell or the surrounding tissue to cause cell death or slow the growth of the cancer. This treatment technique is very flexible, and a wide range of genes and approaches are being used in clinical trials with successful outcomes. As these therapies mature, they may be used alone or in combination with current treatments to help make cancer a manageable disease.

About genes

Genes are the building blocks of inheritance. Passed from parent to child, they contain instructions for making proteins. Proteins are products of the genetic code (DNA), and they drive the workings of cells, tissues, and organs. The proteins produced in a specific cell determine that cell’s function in the body. If genes don’t produce the right proteins, or they produce them incorrectly, an abnormality occurs.

How gene therapy is administered

Initially, cells are taken from a blood sample. The genes are isolated and changed (engineered) in the laboratory. They are then attached to a chemical or inserted into a cell, known as the ‘vector’. At present, the changed genes within the vector are usually given by injection into a vein. They may also be injected directly into the tumour. As this is still an experimental treatment, the way in which gene therapy is given may vary or change as new techniques develop.

When gene therapy will be available

Although gene therapy has had success in treating some genetic diseases it is currently available as a potential treatment for cancer only through clinical trials. It will probably be several years before gene therapy is ready for use to the general public.

Call our National Cancer Helpline

Freephone 1800 200 700 to talk to a specialist cancer nurse
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