Targeting gene therapy to cancer: a review

Oncol Res. 1997;9(6-7):313-25.


In recent years the idea of using gene therapy as a modality in the treatment of diseases other than genetically inherited, monogenic disorders has taken root. This is particularly obvious in the field of oncology where currently more than 100 clinical trials have been approved worldwide. This report will summarize some of the exciting progress that has recently been made with respect to both targeting the delivery of potentially therapeutic genes to tumor sites and regulating their expression within the tumor microenvironment. In order to specifically target malignant cells while at the same time sparing normal tissue, cancer gene therapy will need to combine highly selective gene delivery with highly specific gene expression, specific gene product activity, and, possibly, specific drug activation. Although the efficient delivery of DNA to tumor sites remains a formidable task, progress has been made in recent years using both viral (retrovirus, adenovirus, adeno-associated virus) and nonviral (liposomes, gene gun, injection) methods. In this report emphasis will be placed on targeted rather than high-efficiency delivery, although those would need to be combined in the future for effective therapy. To date delivery has been targeted to tumor-specific and tissue-specific antigens, such as epithelial growth factor receptor, c-kit receptor, and folate receptor, and these will be described in some detail. To increase specificity and safety of gene therapy further, the expression of the therapeutic gene needs to be tightly controlled within the target tissue. Targeted gene expression has been analyzed using tissue-specific promoters (breast-, prostate-, and melanoma-specific promoters) and disease-specific promoters (carcinoembryonic antigen, HER-2/neu, Myc-Max response elements, DF3/MUC). Alternatively, expression could be regulated externally with the use of radiation-induced promoters or tetracycline-responsive elements. Another novel possibility that will be discussed is the regulation of therapeutic gene products by tumor-specific gene splicing. Gene expression could also be targeted at conditions specific to the tumor microenvironment, such as glucose deprivation and hypoxia. We have concentrated on hypoxia-targeted gene expression and this report will discuss our progress in detail. Chronic hypoxia occurs in tissue that is more than 100-200 microns away from a functional blood supply. In solid tumors hypoxia is widespread both because cancer cells are more prolific than the invading endothelial cells that make up the blood vessels and because the newly formed blood supply is disorganized. Measurements of oxygen partial pressure in patients' tumors showed a high percentage of severe hypoxia readings (less than 2.5 mmHg), readings not seen in normal tissue. This is a major problem in the treatment of cancer, because hypoxic cells are resistant to radiotherapy and often to chemotherapy. However, severe hypoxia is also a physiological condition specific to tumors, which makes it a potentially exploitable target. We have utilized hypoxia response elements (HRE) derived from the oxygen-regulated phosphoglycerate kinase gene to control gene expression in human tumor cells in vitro and in experimental tumors. The list of genes that have been considered for use in the treatment of cancer is extensive. It includes cytokines and costimulatory cell surface molecules intended to induce an effective systemic immune response against tumor antigens that would not otherwise develop. Other inventive strategies include the use of internally expressed antibodies to target oncogenic proteins (intrabodies) and the use of antisense technology (antisense oligonucleotides, antigenes, and ribozymes). This report will concentrate more on novel genes encoding prodrug activating enzymes, so-called suicide genes (Herpes simplex virus thymidine kinase, Escherichia coli nitroreductase, E. (ABSTRACT TRUNCATED)

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Genetic Therapy / methods*
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / therapy*
  • Neoplasms, Experimental / therapy