Finding a cure for mesothelioma did not seem possible just several years ago. The asbestos-caused cancer is extremely aggressive, and the cancerous cells invade the lungs and spread throughout the body often rendering standard cancer treatments ineffective against the disease. However, with the recent advances in gene therapy, now being touted as the next frontier in medicine, there is new hope in the medical field that cures are on the horizon for patients with rare and incurable diseases such as mesothelioma.
Ricki Lewis, a New York-based geneticist and author, explores this “next frontier” in her latest book The Forever Fix. The book follows the journey of the use of gene therapy to restore the vision of a young boy who was nearly blind from a hereditary disorder. The doctors replaced the single defective gene in the New York boy’s eyes that prevented his eyes from using vitamin A to send visual signals to his brain. Once the defective gene was replaced, the boy’s vision was restored and no further treatments or surgery were required.
“The goal of gene therapy is to replace faulty instructions,” said Lewis, who has a Ph.D in genetics from Indiana University. “It’s not right for every disease. But it is an approach that can be considered some day along with drugs, surgery and everything else.”
Most rare diseases, of which there are nearly 7,000 in the United States, are caused by a single gene defect, making them better candidates for gene therapy, Lewis said. Cancers, however, are often caused by a combination of genes as well as environmental factors. In the case of mesothelioma, asbestos is known to cause the disease, but researchers now believe a person’s genetics may determine whether they will actually contract the disease.
Lewis points to a study led by Dr. Jill Ohar of Wake Forest University, first reported in Oct. 2009, where as part of a new mesothelioma clinical trial, her team is investigating whether a person’s genes increase the risk of developing mesothelioma. Ohar began her research when she found “that there is a strong tendency for mesothelioma to run in families and it tends to be associated with a family history of cancer, which suggests a genetic susceptibility.”
“Getting at the basis of why one person develops mesothelioma and another person doesn’t, that is going to hold a clue to really fighting it,” Lewis said. “Then we will know what to do the gene therapy on.”
Mesothelioma victims typically show disease symptoms years or even decades after exposure to asbestos in an industrial or manufacturing workplace. The disease is eventually fatal, but aggressive therapy may prolong the lives of patients who are diagnosed early. Hopefully soon, mesothelioma patients will enjoy long, productive lives through research on genetics.
- The Forever Fix
- mesothelioma clinical trial