New gene silencing therapy for cervical cancer

Researchers at The University of Queensland’s (UQ) Centre for Immunology and Cancer Research (CICR), based at the Princess Alexandra Hospital, have pioneered a new approach for the treatment of cervical cancer.


Lead researcher Dr Nigel McMillan said the finding was based on the method of “gene silencing”, a novel technique to target and turn off single genes in a cell.

“Our research shows not only can we stop cervical cancer cells from growing in the test tube, but we can also completely eliminate the formation of cancer tumours in animal models,” Dr McMillan said.

Professor Ian Frazer, Director of the CICR and developer of a vaccine for cervical cancer, said the research represented a significant step towards developing gene therapy for cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in women aged 25-50 worldwide and causes around 300 deaths per year in Australia.

Cervical cancer is caused by infection with the human papillomavirus and is the result of the over-production of two viral cancer-causing genes called E6 and E7.

The research team was able to turn off the production of these genes in cancer cells, resulting in the death of the cancer.

“Because these viral genes are foreign we can treat normal cells and they remain unaffected by our treatment,” Dr McMillan said.

“Development of treatments for humans would be an advance over the current treatments, radiation and chemotherapy, which kill not only cancer cells but also normal cells that leads to hair loss and nausea.

“We envisage such treatment will be used for all forms of cervical cancer including the premalignant lesions picked up by the pap smear and especially for advanced cervical cancers where the cancer has moved to other sites such as the lung or liver.”

Dr McMillan said the research also showed gene silencing enhanced the effect of chemotherapy by up to four times.

He said the findings suggest a cancer-specific treatment for advanced cervical cancers will be possible either alone or in combination with current treatments.

He said the next stage of research will focus on the development of materials for human trials to allow proper delivery of the drug to patients and to investigate whether other cancer types can be treated this way. A treatment using this technique is at least three years away.

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