Viruses help stop growth of breast cancer cells


GENES INJECTED through a virus into breast cancer tumour cells have stopped the cells growing, Cork-based researchers have found. The form of gene therapy is in its infancy but is part of a worldwide drive to target cancer cells using benign viruses.

The Cork Cancer Research Centre (CCRC) and University College Cork (UCC) have been investigating the use of gene therapy for breast cancer treatment since 2008.

The CCRC research team’s gene therapy approach uses modified human viruses to deliver human genes to breast cancer tumours in the laboratory. The genes generate signals within the tumour to cut off its blood supply, and stops its growth.

It is known as an anti-angiogenic strategy (aimed at inhibiting the growth of new blood vessels) for cancer and is being looked at for several different cancers. The therapy is novel in that it uses viruses from humans rather than from animals. It can be delivered intravenously to patients and targets only cancer cells.

The principal investigator at the Cork Cancer Research Centre in UCC, Dr Mark Tangney, believes researchers have demonstrated that the treatment they are developing is “clinically applicable”.

“It is not something that works in the laboratory, but does not work in the patient. If we go and apply them to tumours here in Cork, they work very well and we have very solid evidence that it is not just a phenomenon in the lab, that it gets into breast cancer tumours for real,” he explained.

Dr Tangney said the research was part of a worldwide drive to use gene therapy to target cancers.

Last week one of the pioneers of a targeted approach to breast cancer, Dr Dennis Slamon, the discoverer of Herceptin, addressed a packed meeting in Dublin about advances in cancer treatments.

Dr Tangney predicted that within five years, medicines using viruses to deliver genes that are beneficial to cancer treatments would be commonly available. “I think once that happens there is going to be a huge upsurge in this family of treatments,” he said.

The research is one of seven studies on breast cancer currently funded by the Irish Cancer Society, which aims to improve the outcomes of people affected by cancer through finding new ways to improve diagnosis and treatments.

The Irish Cancer Society will announce its first researcher of the year tomorrow week in Bewley’s Hotel, Ballsbridge, Dublin.