Cancer Research UK cautious over "promising" skin cancer gene therapy

In collaboration with the Press Association

Cancer Research UK has cautiously welcomed the results of a US gene therapy trial.

The trial, based at the US National Cancer Institute, genetically modified the white blood cells of 15 patients with advanced melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, to enable them to fight off the disease.

During preliminary trials, two of the patients saw their tumours shrink and were declared free of the disease within 18 months of the trial's start.

"These are preliminary but promising results for an experimental new cancer treatment. The treatment was aimed at engineering the body's own immune system to spot and kill melanoma skin cancer cells," said Professor John Toy, the charity's medical director.

"It's important to realise that we are not looking at a 'miracle cure' for all cancers. The study produced encouraging results but the treatment only helped two of the 17 patients who received it."

The research, led by the NCI's Steve Rosenberg, used T-cells - a special type of immune cell that can recognize and attack 'foreign' cells - to attack the cancers.

The team took T-cells from the melanoma patients and modified them in the laboratory with a gene that enabled them to attack and destroy melanoma cells, before injecting them back into the cancer patients.

So far, the therapy has only been used in this small group of melanoma patients, but Rosenberg said his team has demonstrated ways to engineer similar immune cells in the laboratory that would attack more common tumours such as breast, lung and liver cancers.

The technique "represents the first time that gene manipulations have been shown to cause tumour regression in humans," Rosenberg added.

The trial results are is published in the journal Science.

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