Stem cell and gene therapy combination to target lung cancer

A pioneering new lung cancer therapy combining cell therapy and gene therapy is to be tested on patients in the UK.

Researchers led by Professor Sam Janes at London’s UCL/UCLH will carry out the first UK clinical trial of a combined therapy against lung cancer, which kills around 34,000 people a year in the UK.

The new technique uses stem cells as a delivery vehicle for a potent anti-cancer gene, which induces a self-destruct pathway in cancer, but not healthy cells.

The new approach is just one of many exciting new ways of attacking cancers, thanks to growing expertise in using targeted therapies to hit tumours.

The therapy works by modifying donor stem cells so that they express an anti-cancer gene called Tumour Necrosis Factor related Apoptosis-Inducing Ligand (TRAIL).

Being encased within a cell protects the genetic material from being degraded by the body so that when it reaches the tumour it is able to trigger a signalling pathway that kills the cancer cells.

The trial is receiving £2 million of funding from the Biomedical Catalyst from the UK’s Medical Research Council (MRC).

Principal Investigator Sam Janes, a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow and Professor of Respiratory Medicine at UCL and Consultant in Respiratory Medicine at UCLH, said:

“Lung cancer is very difficult to treat because the vast majority of patients are not diagnosed until the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.”

Chemotherapy is the standard approach to tackling lung cancer, but can usually only delay the progress of the disease by a few months, and can also cause serious side effects.

The stem cells used in the new trial have an innate tendency to home in on tumours when they’re injected into the body, and then switch on a ‘kill’ pathway in the cancer cells, leaving healthy surrounding cells untouched.

Sam Janes added: “If clinical trials are successful, our treatment could be transformative for the treatment of lung cancer, and possibly other types of tumour in future.”

Other cell and stem cell therapies

The new technique is part of a wave of novel treatments being investigated by academics, pharma and biotech companies.

A key advantage of the approach is that the cells can be used ‘off the shelf’ and do not need to be from a close relative or tissue match. This is because they have relatively few proteins on the surface and do not induce an immune response in the recipient.

Another promising approach within cell therapy is in the use of chimeric antigen receptors (CARs), special proteins that allow genetically engineered T cells to recognise a specific protein (antigen) on tumour cells.

Many pharma companies are advancing CAR-T therapies, including Novartis, which is working with the University of Pennsylvania, while biotechs such as Bluebird Bio, Kite Pharma and Juno Therapeutics are also working in the field.

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