Gene therapy could be used to shield healthy bone marrow stem cells from the effects of radiotherapy treatment for cancer, research suggests.
Radiotherapy can damage healthy cells
Radiotherapy is used to kill off cancer cells, but can also damage bone marrow cells that produce blood cells vital for life.
Protecting these cells should allow stronger radiotherapy doses to be administered safely.
The Manchester University study appears in the Journal of Gene Medicine.
The new technique, developed by a team at the university's Paterson Institute for Cancer Research, stimulates bone marrow stem cells to produce more of a protein called SOD2.
This protein appears to protect the cell against the damage triggered by exposure to radiation.
The Paterson team hope eventually to develop a pre-treatment that can be administered before a patient undergoes radiotherapy.
Radiation generates highly reactive chemicals, called free radicals, inside the body.
These cause damage to DNA in cells, and if the damage cannot be repaired by the cell itself, it dies.
The big problem with radiotherapy is that although it kills cancer cells, it often cannot be targeted precisely enough to leave healthy cells unscathed.
However, cells do use a family of molecules called superoxide dismutases (SOD) to fight back.
These molecules are able to convert some free radicals into hydrogen peroxide, which can then be disposed of by the cell.
The Paterson team used a harmless virus to insert an extra copy of the SOD2 gene into bone marrow stem cells to boost production of the protein.
These cells were then found to be able to continue to proliferate at doses of radiation that would normally kill unprotected cells.
Researcher Dr Thomas Southgate said: "Our results show that this treatment approach could have a substantial radioprotective effect to the human bone marrow, reducing the killing of healthy cells, making radiotherapy more effective.
"There is still a great deal of work to be done before we can start trying it in patients but the prospects are potentially very exciting."
Dr Lesley Walker, of the charity Cancer Research UK, said: "There is always room to improve existing treatments for cancer.
"Radioprotective gene therapy, as described in this study, would enhance the effectiveness of many types of radiation treatment currently used for treating cancer."