University Hospital Birmingham team pioneer cancer gene therapy

Doctors at University Hospital of Birmingham NHS Trust have been working on the project for 15 years

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Doctors in Birmingham have started a trial of a new gene therapy treatment they hope will help fight prostate cancer.

Injected directly into the tumour it is is designed to stimulate the body's own immune system.

Bernard Ward, 68, from Birmingham was the first patient in the world to receive the new procedure.

He is one of 20 patients taking part in the first phase of a trial by University Hospitals Birmingham.

The initial trial is designed to establish whether the treatment is safe for clinical use.

Mr Ward has suffered from prostate cancer for six years and standard treatments are no longer working.

"I just hope it works. I don't have any choice but to try this treatment because I haven't got anything else," he said.

Under general anaesthetic, urology specialist Prashant Patel injected Mr Ward with a virus, engineered from the common cold, directly into the prostate cancer tumour.

A gene attached to the virus (GM-CSF) is then released by the virus which activates the body's own immune system attracting white blood cells to attack the cancer.

At the same time the virus carries an enzyme - nitroreductase - which sits inside the cancer cell.

Two days after the injection, Mr Ward will be put on a drip which contains a cancer drug (CB1954), which is initially inactive. However, when the drug comes into contact with the enzyme, it reacts and starts killing the cancer cells.

Bernard Ward Bernard Ward was the first patient to receive the new treatment
'Like moon landings'

The inactive drug, CB1954, does not harm healthy cells, which do not have the enzyme inside.

It has taken 15 years of work at the University of Birmingham to engineer the project to make the treatment and get approval for the first human trial from the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency.

In studies on mice, the treatment, developed by the Cancer Research UK Clinical Trials Unit, managed to completely eradicate the prostate cancer.

Mr Patel is hopeful that it could provide real hope for patients who are running out of treatment options.

He said: "I have to stress that this is only a phase one safety trial to test that there are no side effects. However, we are excited by this."

His colleague Richard Viney compared the complexity of the work so far to the moon landings.

"There has been a huge team of people and a huge number of tiny details to sort out to get to this point," he said.

"If this works, 15 to 20 years from now, we could be using the patient's own immune system in this way to fight early onset prostate cancer so that patients won't need painful treatments or even surgery."

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