National Cancer Institute researchers are making advances on the use of gene therapy to treat advanced melanoma, the most serious and aggressive type of skin cancer. The procedure uses autologous lymphocytes –the patient’s own white blood cells– genetically engineered to recognize and attack cancer cells.
“These results represent the first time gene therapy has been used successfully to treat cancer. Moreover, we hope it will be applicable not only to melanoma, but also for a broad range of common cancers, such as breast and lung cancer,” said NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D.
The process involved what is called an adoptive cell transfer:
Lymphocytes are harvested from the patients with advanced melanoma. The cells are then infected with a retrovirus which carries and delivers genes that encode specific proteins called T cell receptors (TCRs). When TCRs are expressed on the outer surface of the lymphocytes, the cells recognize and bind to certain molecules found on the surface of tumor cells, which are then destroyed by the lymphocytes.