Magazine article Science News

Cancer War Escalates to Genetic Weapons

Magazine article Science News

Cancer War Escalates to Genetic Weapons

Article excerpt

Cancer war escalates to genetic weapons

Two terminally ill cancer patients this week received infusions of genetically engineered white blood cells designed to attack their intractable tumors, marking the first attempt to use gene therapy against cancer, federal scientists announced. The event comes four months after the first human gene therapy experiment, in which researchers added a missing gene to the blood cells of a child suffering from a deadly immune deficiency (SN: 9/22/90, p.180).

Both cancer patients -- a 29-year-old woman and a 42-year-old man -- have advanced melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer that had failed to respond to traditional therapies. The experimental approach, which received the final go-ahead from the Food and Drug Administration on Jan. 8, seeks to enhance the tumor-fighting power of the patients' own white blood cells by boosting production of tumor necrosis factor (TNF), a potent cancer-shrinking compound normally secreted in small quantities by those cells. The work is led by Steven A. Rosenberg, R. Michael Blaese and W. French Anderson of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

Several weeks ago, the researchers removed white blood cells called tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes from each patient's tumors. These cells naturally home in on tumors but often lack the power to kill them. The team cultured the lymphocytes in the laboratory, mixing them with partially disabled viruses loaded with extra copies of the TNF gene. The viruses acted as delivery trucks, dropping their TNF-gene packages into the lymphocytes' DNA. This week, after tests showed that the cultured cells had incorporated the TNF genes, the researchers returned the cells to the patients.

"This is an attempt to use genetic techniques to improve medical treatment for cancer patients," says Rosenberg. …

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