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Wednesday, March 31, 1999 Published at 04:41 GMT 05:41 UK


Gene therapy 'could treat brain cancer'

Gene techniques could lead to a treatment for brain cancer

Scientists are using state-of-the-art genetic engineering techniques to develop a treatment for brain cancer.

A team led by Dr Saghir Akhtar, from Aston University, Birmingham, is using a new technique nicknamed DNA chip technology to develop a treatment for the most common and dangerous type of brain cancer - glioma.

Gliomas affect about 4,000 adults and children in the UK each year and can be very hard to treat.

Dr Akhtar plans to target a cancer gene called c-erbBI which is faulty in 40% of cases, and triggers the growth of cancer cells.

Using DNA chip technology, he can target the mechanism by which genetic instructions leading to the growth of cancer cells are read.

The DNA which makes up the genes contains instructions for building proteins which are locked away in the nucleus of a cell.

Only copies of the blueprint, in the form of template molecules called RNA, are sent out into the cell to be "read" and acted on.


[ image: DNA: The building block of life]
DNA: The building block of life
Dr Akhtar plans to develop a means of spotting and destroying the RNA copies of c-erbBI before their dangerous instructions are read - an approach known as "anti-sense".

This can be done using short pieces - or chips - of DNA which closely mirror part of the RNA structure.

The chips are actually small pieces of glass about the size of a 20p piece which are covered with chopped up bits of DNA.

Introduced into cells, the DNA fragments stick to the RNA, producing a molecular mixture which will be recognised as "wrong" by the body's defences and destroyed.

But the DNA must be a good match and stick properly to the RNA. It must also only stick to the copies of c-erbBI while leaving other pieces of RNA alone, otherwise cells will be damaged.

The chips are washed with a solution containing RNA and then examined by computer to find out what has stuck.

Dr Akhtar, who is being funded by the Cancer Research Campaign, said: "A couple of years ago the process to find the right bit of DNA would have been mostly guesswork, trial and error.

"Now, using this new technique of DNA chip technology, we can test hundreds of pieces of DNA for their potential to target this rogue gene's instructions.

"We are still looking for a needle in a haystack, but at least we can search large bundles of hay at one time instead of stalk by stalk."

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