A Trojan horse for breast cancer

1 March 2011

An artificial molecule that can "trick" its way into cancer cells to deliver a self-destruct gene has been developed by scientists from the UK and USA.

 Dr Helen McCarthy from Queen’s University Belfast and colleagues attached a gene to an engineered molecule called a Designer Biomimetic Vector (DBV) allowing it to be delivered straight into breast cancer cells in the laboratory.

The gene called iNOS, is targeted specifically to breast cancer cells using the DBV where it forces the cells to produce poisonous nitric oxide; either killing the cells outright or making them more vulnerable to being destroyed by chemotherapy and radiotherapy. As this approach leaves normal healthy breast cells unaffected, this would overcome many of the toxic side effects of current treatments.

Further investigation is needed but it could be trialled in patients in as little as five years. Dr McCarthy’s next step is to turn the DBV-gene nanoparticles into a dried powder that could be easily transported and reconstituted before being given to patients. The research was published in the International Journal of Pharmaceutics [1].

Dr McCarthy said: “A major stumbling block to using gene therapy in the past has been the lack of an effective delivery system. Combining the Designer Biomimetic Vector with the iNOS gene has proved successful in killing breast cancer cells in the laboratory. In the long term, I see this being used to treat people with metastatic breast cancer that has spread to the bones, ideally administered before radiotherapy and chemotherapy.”

Dr Lisa Wilde, Research Information Senior Manager, Breast Cancer Campaign said: “Gene therapy could potentially be an exciting avenue for treating breast cancer. Although at an early stage, Dr McCarthy’s laboratory research shows that this system for delivering toxic genes to tumour cells holds great promise and we look forward to seeing how it is translated into patients."


1. Helen McCarthy, Alek Zholobenko, Yuhua Wang, Brenda Canine, Tracy Robson, David Hirst and Arash Hatefi. Evaluation of a multi-functional nanocarrier for targeted breast cancer iNOS gene therapy. International Journal of Pharmaceutics. Volume 405, Issues 1-2, 28 February 2011, Pages 196-202. doi:10.1016/j.ijpharm.2010.11.051


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