Gene therapists at UAB, led by David Curiel, have created a new way to modify viruses so they have a better chance at disarming cancer cell defenses.
Gene therapy is a wonder to behold in the lab, where scientists have produced reengineered viruses capable of wiping out cancer and a host of other diseases. But after hundreds of trials and thousands of patients worldwide, gene therapy has had few notable successes where it counts—in sick patients.
Then 10 years ago, a UAB M.D./Ph.D. student named Ryan Miller made a vital discovery. He found that tumor cells lose a key virus receptor that is usually present in normal cells. That loss turns out to be the tumor cells’ gain, because it helps them evade the genetically modified assaults scientists have been launching against them.
Miller’s discovery spurred members of UAB’s Gene Therapy Center, led by David Curiel, Ph.D., to work on a more potent, enhanced virus that can interact with tumor cells even in the absence of this key receptor. This spring, UAB oncologist Ronald Alvarez, M.D., wrapped up the first human trial of the new virus, demonstrating in 21 cancer patients that it is indeed safe for human use.
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