Gene therapy "shield" could reduce radiation damage says study

In collaboration with the Press Association

Healthy bone marrow cells could be protected from the side-effects of radiotherapy by pre-treating them with a gene therapy "shield", says new laboratory research.

The technique, so far only used in a petri dish, used a specially engineered but non-harmful virus designed to infect only bone marrow cells.

The virus has been further modified to carry a human gene that carries information on how to make a protein called superoxide dismutase 2, or SOD2.

SOD2 is one of the body's defence mechanisms against damage, mopping up harmful radicals such as those caused by radiation damage.

When modified by the virus, the bone marrow cells produce higher levels of SOD2 than normal.

The protein appeared to provide the cells with added protection against radiation, reducing the side effects of the treatment and allowing for stronger doses.

Bone marrow is responsible for producing white blood cells; one of the side effects of radiotherapy is that affects bone marrow cells and lowers the number of white blood cells in the body, making patients more susceptible to infection.

"There is still a great deal of work to be done before we can start trying it in patients but the prospects are potentially very exciting," said researcher Dr Thomas Southgate.

The team, based at the Paterson Institute for Cancer Research at the University of Manchester, hopes that eventually the discovery will yield pre-treatment protection.

"There is always room to improve existing treatments for cancer," added Dr Lesley Walker of Cancer Research UK.

"Radioprotective gene therapy, as described in this study, would enhance the effectiveness of many types of radiation treatment currently used for treating cancer."

The research is published in the Journal of Gene Medicine.

Find out more about gene therapy

Read the abstract of this paper