Objectives/hypothesis: New treatment methods are needed for head and neck cancer to improve survival without increasing morbidity. Gene therapy is a potential method of improving patient outcome. Progress in gene therapy for cancer is reviewed with emphasis on the limitations of vector technology and treatment strategies. Given the current technological vector limitations in transmitting the therapeutic genes, treatments that require the fewest number of cells to be altered by the new gene are optimal. Therefore an immune-based gene therapy strategy was selected in which the tumors were transfected with the gene for an alloantigen, human leukocyte antigen (HLA)-B7, a class I major histocompatibility complex (MHC). This would restore an antigen presentation mechanism in the tumor to induce an antitumor response. This gene therapy strategy was tested in patients with advanced, unresectable head and neck cancer.
Study design: Prospective trial.
Methods: Twenty patients with advanced head and neck cancer who had failed conventional therapy and did not express HLA-B7 were treated with gene therapy using a lipid vector by direct intratumoral injection. The gene therapy product contained the HLA-B7 gene and the beta2-microglobulin gene, which permits complete expression of the class I MHC at the cell surface. Patients were assessed for any adverse effects, for changes in tumor size, for time to disease progression, and for survival. Biopsy specimens were assessed for pathological response, HLA-B7 expression, apoptosis, cellular proliferation, CD-8 cells, granzyme, and p53 status.
Results: There were no adverse effects from the gene therapy. At 16 weeks after beginning gene therapy, four patients had a partial response and two patients had stable disease. Two of the tumors completely responded clinically, but tumor was still seen on pathological examination. The time to disease progression in the responding patients was 20 to 80 weeks. The median survival in patients who completed gene therapy was 54 weeks, compared with 21 weeks in patients whose tumors progressed after the first cycle of treatment. One patient survived for 106 weeks without any additional therapy. HLA-B7 was demonstrated in the treated tumors, and increased apoptosis was seen in the responding tumors.
Conclusion: Significant advances have been made in the field of gene therapy for cancer. Alloantigen gene therapy has had efficacy in the treatment of cancer and can induce tumor responses in head and neck tumors. Alloantigen gene therapy has significant potential as an adjunctive treatment of head and neck cancer.