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Last Updated:  Tuesday, 1 April, 2003, 23:51 GMT 00:51 UK
Gene therapy for bowel cancer
Bowel scans
Bowel cancer is a common killer
Transfusions of genetically engineered blood cells could give bowel cancer patients a powerful boost against their disease, say scientists.

Researchers took blood cells from patients with advanced bowel cancer and turned them into potent cancer killers.

The technique involves engineering patients' white blood cells - the 'foot soldiers' of the immune system - to recognise and destroy tumours.

Scientists now intend to begin the UK's first trial of the treatment, which they hope will transform the prospects of many people with bowel cancer.

For the immune system to successfully fight off cancer, it first has to recognise cancer cells as alien invaders.

What we have done is give our immune cells the equipment they need to recognise, home in on and destroy cells from tumours
Professor Robert Hawkins
But unlike infectious agents, cancer cells are rogue versions of the patient's own cells and carry a very similar set of genes, making them much harder to recognise and attack.

In the new study, researchers from the Cancer Research UK Department of Medical Oncology at the Paterson Institute for Cancer Research in Manchester aimed to give white blood cells an artificial boost to help them fight off the disease.

White cells

They took blood samples from 10 patients with advanced bowel cancer and isolated a type of white blood cell called T-lymphocytes.

These cells are responsible for homing in on alien cells and attacking them.

Researchers engineered the lymphocytes with an artificial gene designed to boost their ability to seek out and destroy cancer cells.

In lab tests engineered cells from all 10 patients showed powerful anti-cancer activity.

Lead researcher Professor Robert Hawkins said: "In most situations, the immune system is powerful and highly effective, but when it comes to cancer it can get confused and may need a helping hand.

"What we have done is give our immune cells the equipment they need to recognise, home in on and destroy cells from tumours, allowing us to harness the power of the immune system to tackle the disease.

"We have shown that the technique works 100% of the time in the laboratory, but the real test will be whether it works in cancer patients, which we will begin to look at in the clinical trial."

The trial of the technique will take place next year at Manchester's Christie Hospital.

Bowel cancer is the third most common cancer in the UK, with 35,550 cases each year.

It is the second biggest killer, with over 16,000 deaths annually.

The research is published in the British Journal of Cancer.

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