When my Dad’s chemo stopped responding we tried to get him into a study at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, MD with Dr. Steven Rosenberg. It turned out to be too late for my Dad, but the study showed great results in two patients.
Two patients with advanced stages of melanoma, a particularly deadly skin cancer, have been living virtually disease-free for more than 19 months after an experiment hailed by federal researchers as the first successful application of gene therapy against cancer.
Strictly defined, gene therapy is the insertion of a foreign gene into a cell to give it new properties or to correct an inherited genetic error. In the early 1990s, it was considered one of the hottest fields in experimental medicine, but that early optimism faded with the realization that gene transfers to patients was difficult and sometimes dangerous.
Skeptics quickly noted that this latest experiment was tiny and helped only two of 17 patients enrolled.
“I’m very enthusiastic about this latest advance, but we should not over-spin,” said Savio Woo, a professor at New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine and a past president of the American Society for Gene Therapy.
But Dr. Steven Rosenberg, the cancer institute researcher who led the melanoma study, said no therapy of this sort has ever worked this well before. He has been tinkering with various gene therapy techniques since 1990, when he led the first study showing that it was possible to transfer cancer-fighting traits into the genes of patients. Despite early promise, none of those efforts bore fruit until now.
It’s hard not to think of a hundred “what if?” scenarios for my Dad, but I’m happy for the thousands of people this could potentially help not to mention other people in my family who are probably more susceptible to melanoma. It kills almost 8,000 people a year in the US.