Conventional medicine wasn't working for Charles Rogers. Chemotherapy and radiation made him sick, and surgery for the large tumor on his lung wasn't an option. Doctors at Houston's M.D. Anderson Cancer center thought Rogers' only hope was an experimental treatment known as gene therapy.
"P53 is what's called a tumor suppressor gene," says one of Rogers' physicians, Dr. Jack Roth. "In its normal form, it acts as a brake on cell growth."
In healthy people the function of P53 is to prevent tumors from growing, but in most people who develop cancer, the P53 gene has become defective. The idea of this new gene therapy is to deliver P53 manufactured in a lab directly into the tumor, causing cancerous cells to self-destruct.
By combining this treatment with radiation, they hope to stop the cancer's growth, maybe even reduce it.
It's too early to tell if Charles Rogers will benefit, but other lung cancer patients have seen their tumors shrink.
"I'm certainly very excited about it," says Dr. Roth. "I believe that it's certainly one part of the future."
In labs across the country, many scientists are absolutely convinced the key to beating cancer in the next millennium lies in the genes. They are forging ahead with research on how genes can be safely manipulated to reverse lung cancer, ovarian cancer and even the deadliest of brain cancers.
Take the case of Joyce Turner. At 68, Turner was dying of an aggressive brain tumor, a particularly devastating prognosis for someone who had already survived breast and ovarian cancers. She was, she admits, distraught. "Pieces of my body I can live without, but my brain is meÂ…".
Dr. Isabel Germano, a neurosurgeon from New York's Mt. Sinai Hospital, believed that since surgeries and radiation failed, gene therapy was Joyce's only chance.
She was right. Not only is Joyce alive, but CAT scans show the cancer has vanished.
"This patient has been tumor free for close to a year after the gene therapy," says Dr. Germano. "I strongly believe that gene therapy is going to be a least one of the answers, if not the best one for primary brain tumors."
But UCLA's Dr. Mark Pegram, who's investigating gene therapy for ovarian cancer, says the technology still has a major hurdle to clear in the future: Right now, a deactivated common cold virus is used to carry genes to their targets. But it can't always reach all cancerous cells.
"What we have now is an engineerig problem," Dr. Pegram says. "We have to figure out, and be smart, and design ways to get the genes where we want them to go so they can do their job."
That's just a matter of time, two or three years, according to Dr. Roth. He believes gene therapy holds not only a cure, but may one day be able to prevent cancer Â— by reversing the activity of genes that could cause illness. As he says, "In the future, we might be able to identify individuals who are at high risk for cancer, identify genetic abnormalities that are present and even correct those before the cancer developsÂ…. That's my dream."
It's a dream that many believe will be reality, completely changing the way we view cancer - from a death sentence in the 20th century to a disease we can learn to live with in the 21st.
For more about recent developments in cancer treatment, click here.