Are Gene Therapy and Stem Cell Research Leading the Cure for Cancer?
July 2019

There isn’t a day that goes by without a mention of cancer in the news; either someone famous has succumbed to this indiscriminate disease or progress has been made in the war against it.

What is Cancer?

Essentially, cancer is just the catch-all name given to the collective related diseases that are a result of the body’s cells dividing, non-stop, and spreading into surrounding tissues. Cancer can occur almost anywhere in the body. 

How Cells Work

Our bodies are made up of trillions upon trillions of cells, each and every day they grow old and die and new ones spring up in their place. This circle of life is what sustains us – human cells grow and divide to create new cells as and where they’re needed. 

Problems arise and cancer is created when this cell perpetuation cycle breaks down. What should happen is cells are created, they function and they die. But sometimes abnormal cells are created instead of healthy ones, and cells that have served their purpose don’t die like they’re supposed to. 

Instead these abnormal, old or damaged cells take on a life of their own, and divide, nonstop, creating the growths we know as tumours. However, that’s not to say all cancers have solid tumours, leukemia, cancer of the blood for instance, does not. 

How Cancer Cells Survive

Cancer cells differ to normal cells in that they are less specialised. Whereby normal cells mature into whatever they need to be, cancer cells don’t. Which is one of the reasons they keep on dividing and growing, because there is nothing there to tell them stop. And they are able to ignore any signals that might tell them otherwise. 

Cancer cells are able to dominate the cells around them, and have them do what is needed to keep the cancer going. Cancer cells are even able to avoid detection by the immune system, the system that normally rejects abnormal cells, some of which are even able to manipulate the immune system so it doesn’t attack the growing tumour. 

Current cancer treatments

  • Surgery – removes the cancer from the body.
  • Radiotherapy – uses high doses of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumours.
  • Chemotherapy – uses a combination of drugs to kill cancer cells.
  • Immunotherapy – a form of treatment that harnesses the body’s own immune system to kill cancer cells.
  • Stem cell transplant – this treatment replaces stem cells in patients who have had their own stem cells blasted by high doses of radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

But what if all we are doing with these current treatments is akin to weeding – thinning out the leaves but leaving the root in place, meaning that the weed (or cancer) may look dead, but it can grow back?

Which brings us onto the stem cell theory of cancer.

The stem cell theory of cancer

Research has shown that not all cancer cells are created equal, and even within the same tumour or among the same circulating cancerous cells there is variation. The stem cell theory of cancer is a relatively straightforward idea, believing that amongst all of these cells, these different varieties of cancerous cells, there are a few naturally occurring stem cells that perpetuate the cycle. 

These renegade cells that breath life into the cancer by reproducing themselves and sustaining the cancer, much like normal, healthy stem cells do in our bodies. The stem cell theory of cancer is thus – without these cancer stem cells, the cancer would run out of steam because it wouldn’t be able to reproduce itself. 

This idea alone opens up a world of possibilities for looking for a cure for cancer. If these cancerous stem cells really do hold all of the power for cancer, it creates implications for where research should be conducted. Because currently cancer therapies are rated on their ability to shrink tumours, but if the stem cells aren’t being targeted, the tumours will grow back. Finding a way to remove these stem cells is key. 

However this isn’t the only viable ongoing research into finding a treatment for cancer.

Cancer Gene Therapy Programme

A recent study by Celixir has revealed positive results for potential cancer gene therapies using small interfering RNA (siRNA). siRNA can be used to silence almost any gene, as long as its sequence is known and a specific siRNA can be designed for it. 

siRNA-based therapies, first shown to be effective in 2001, have come on leaps and bounds in the intervening 20 years. siRNA-based therapies can be used to treat single-gene disorders and conditions that involve over-expression of one or more proteins. This improvement in gene therapy alongside our better understanding of the underlying genetic basis of many diseases, has opened the door to treat disorders that were once thought to be untreatable.

Standby cancer, we’re coming for you. 

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