Gene Therapy for Cancer and Mesothelioma

Donald Hardy: First recipient of gene therapy for mesothelioma

For 35 years, Donald Hardy worked with asbestos. He installed it as insulation in power plants and factories; he mixed it, at times with his bare hands, into batches of concrete. Breathing in the fibers that clouded his workplace gave him headaches, so unlike many of his coworkers, he fashioned homemade facemasks from cotton diapers.

It wasn't until the 70s that the dangers of asbestos were revealed to those who'd worked so closely with it. Hardy knew that his makeshift facemask had probably provided little protection from the deadly fibers, especially as his coworkers fell ill and passed away from mesothelioma. In September of 1994, his fear was confirmed when he was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma.

Unlike many of his coworkers, who simply resigned themselves to the disease, Hardy sought out and researched specialists and treatments. Presented with the regularly performed radiation, surgery, and chemotherapy treatments, Hardy was disatisfied. The cost to his health, even if the procedures were successful, seemed high, and the "success" of these treatments was still measured only in months. He opted to seek out something different, and he found it at the University of Pennsylvania.

Scientists had been working on using gene therapy to fight cancer for years. At the University of Pennsylvania, they had developed a revolutionary treatment in laboratory animals and were ready to test it in humans. While untested in humans, it provided Hardy with something none of the other treatments had: hope. In November of 1995, Hardy became the first person to receive gene therapy for mesothelioma. The goal was to introduce so-called "suicided genes" in to the cancer cells, making them sensitive to the drug ganciclovir.

A tube was inserted into Hardy's chest cavity through which the theraputic solution was added. Hardy was asked to roll back and forth, sloshing it over as much of the tumor as possible. And they waited. After a brief heart rate and temperature increase, Hardy's vital signs stablized. Four days after the treatment, biopsies were taken to evaluate its success, but results were inconclusive.

For Hardy, they have been anything but inconclusive. He has continued to maintain his active lifestyle, which includes wintering in Florida, spending the summers in New Jersey with family, and a lot of golf. Monthly checkups monitored the tumor's growth, or decided lack of growth. Many others joined Hardy's initial trial, but not all met with the same success.

Even five years after receiving the gene therapy treatment, Hardy's health remained. His success has even surprised the doctors that provided the treatment. But was it the therapy or Hardy's positive attitude that has maintained his health? It's impossible to know, but mesothelioma gene therapy along with cancer gene therapy trials have continued to expand the knowledge on this promising new treatment. Knowledge that will hopefully help find a cure for mesothelioma or other cancers.

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