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New lung cancer weapon studied RE: Stem Cells


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New lung cancer weapon studied

By Bruce Lieberman


January 6, 2007

For biologist Ruth Gjerset, curing lung cancer may require concealing a weapon in a kind of Trojan horse.

JIM BAIRD / Union-Tribune

Ruth Gjerset, a researcher at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center in La Jolla, is working on ways to hide cancer-fighting genes inside stem cells grown from a patient's bone marrow.

The researcher, who works at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center in La Jolla, is working on ways to hide cancer-fighting genes inside stem cells grown from a patient's bone marrow. Once injected into the patient, the stem cells would theoretically carry the anti-cancer genes to the appropriate sites.

Scientists haven't learned how to consistently use such gene therapy without causing an immune reaction that rejects the treatment and threatens the life of the patient.

Gjerset believes stem cells are part of the answer, and her idea has caught the attention of a lung cancer foundation in New York City. Joan's Legacy, named for an NBC News writer who died of lung cancer in 2000, recently awarded Gjerset $100,000 to advance her studies.

“We're real excited about the research that Ruth is doing . . . and think that is the kind of approach that's going to actually save lives,” said Susan Mantel, the foundation's executive director.

Despite setbacks in early experiments with gene therapy, many scientists say changing the genes inside cancer cells would be a far more sophisticated and effective way to battle cancer than the current treatment: bombarding the body with chemotherapy and radiation.

Lung cancer is a good target for new developments.

More people die from the disease than any other type of cancer, said the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

In 2004, nearly 174,000 people in the United States were diagnosed with lung cancer and more than 160,000 died from the disease, the American Lung Association estimated.

Smoking causes about 87 percent of lung cancer cases, according to the association. Joan's Legacy has worked to raise awareness of lung cancers not caused by smoking.

Radon, a naturally occurring gas that comes from rocks and dirt and sometimes can be found in people's homes, raises a person's risk of getting lung cancer. Exposure to asbestos, arsenic, chromium and some forms of silica also increases the risk.

Alcohol abuse may play a role, too, although it's difficult to say whether drinking or smoking is the culprit because many people who drink also smoke.

Anti-smoking campaigns nationwide have been so effective that many people wrongly believe that if they don't smoke, they won't get lung cancer, Mantel said.

But many people who have never smoked, or who quit years ago, still get the disease. Physicians need to find ways to diagnose the condition earlier and treat it more effectively, she said.

“In a way, a lung cancer patient is a victim of the success of the prevention forces . . . (that) left research into effective diagnosis and treatment virtually untapped,” Mantel said.

Gjerset said she had personal motivation for wanting to combat lung cancer.

“I have friends who have had lung cancer, and I have a friend right now who has lung cancer,” said Gjerset, who lives in University City. “I would very much like to be able to use my knowledge to do something for these people.”

Gjerset, a graduate of the University of California San Diego, with a major in biology and a minor in music, completed her postdoctoral studies at UC San Francisco's medical school. She then worked as a researcher at the Pasteur Institute in Paris before joining the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center 14 years ago.

The gene therapy technique Gjerset hopes to develop for lung cancer would be a multistep process.

First, she would engineer viruses to carry the anti-cancer genes. Then she would hide those viruses inside mesenchymal stem cells, which are grown from a sample of a patient's bone marrow. Such stem cells would not be rejected as foreign objects by the immune system when they're injected back into the patient.

Once inside the patient's bloodstream, the stem cells would migrate to cancerous tumors and release the viruses. The viruses would then infect the cancer cells, deliver their anti-cancer genes and halt the tumors' growth.

“I'm hoping that within a two-to three-year period, we'll know pretty well whether this approach is going to be effective and can be actually used in patients with cancer,” Gjerset said.


Bruce Lieberman: (619) 293-2836; bruce.lieberman@uniontrib.com

Find this article at:

http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/busi ... ancer.html

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