A major impediment to the successful application of gene therapy for the treatment of a range of diseases is not a paucity of therapeutic genes, but the lack of an efficient non-toxic gene delivery system. Having evolved to deliver their genes to target cells, viruses are currently the most effective means of gene delivery and can be manipulated to express therapeutic genes or to replicate specifically in certain cells. Gene therapy is being developed for a range of diseases including inherited monogenic disorders and cardiovascular disease, but it is in the treatment of cancer that this approach has been most evident, resulting in the recent licensing of a gene therapy for the routine treatment of head and neck cancer in China. A variety of virus vectors have been employed to deliver genes to cells to provide either transient (eg adenovirus, vaccinia virus) or permanent (eg retrovirus, adeno-associated virus) transgene expression and each approach has its own advantages and disadvantages. Paramount is the safety of these virus vectors and a greater understanding of the virus-host interaction is key to optimizing the use of these vectors for routine clinical use. Recent developments in the modification of the virus coat allow more targeted approaches and herald the advent of systemic delivery of therapeutic viruses. In the context of cancer, the ability of attenuated viruses to replicate specifically in tumour cells has already yielded some impressive results in clinical trials and bodes well for the future of this approach, particularly when combined with more traditional anti-cancer therapies.
Copyright 2006 Pathological Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.