Gene therapy can be used for the treatment and elimination of terminal ailments such as Cancer and Sickle Cell Anaemia says Rose Gidado, the Scientific Officer and Assistant Director of the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA).
This, she said is made possible through editing and modification of genes that make the human system susceptible to such terminal diseases.
Gene therapy is the introduction of normal genes into cells in place of missing or defective ones in order to correct genetic disorders. It is an experimental technique that uses genes to treat or prevent disease.
In the future, researchers believe this technique may allow doctors to treat all disorders by inserting a gene into a patient’s cells instead of using drugs or surgery.
On how this technology can be used to cure cancer, Mrs Gidado who also doubles as the country coordinator of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) in Africa in an exclusive interview with PREMIUM TIMES explained.
“Gene is the blueprint of life. Everything that makes us unique as humans is being controlled by a particular gene so when a particular gene that protects me against cancer is weak and cannot withstand the disease, medical doctors based on this understanding will open up my genome and study my genes very well after which they will find a more active gene in my system and use it to either edit the inactive gene or simple flush it out of the system.”
Genome editing, or genome engineering is a type of genetic engineering in which DNA is inserted, deleted, modified or replaced in the genome of a living organism.
She noted that the process must be backed with chemotherapy after which the cancer cells “will start dying off”.
“Once the cancer cells is flushed out of your system you will now build immunity against cancer and your cancer is cured,” she added.
She explained that she is not aware of the process ever being carried out successfully in Nigeria “but it has worked in other climes”.
Cancer is a generic term for a large group of diseases characterised by the growth of abnormal cells beyond their usual boundaries that can then invade adjoining parts of the body and spread to other organs.
The most common types in men are lung, prostate, colorectal, stomach and liver cancer while breast, colorectal, lung, cervix and stomach cancer are the most common among women.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), cancer is the second leading cause of deaths globally and accounted for 8.8 million deaths in 2015. Globally, nearly one in 6 deaths is due to cancer.
In Nigeria, cancer leads to over 72,000 deaths per annum. This number is set to increase given that there are over 102,000 new cases of cancer every year.
On how the technology can be used to cure Sickle Cell Anaemia , Gidado said, “using it to cure Sickle cell is the one I know has being performed in Benin, Edo State capital by one Dr Bazau that was collaborating with us then.
“What they did was that they took stem cell either from the cousin, mother or father or any relation of the sickle cell sufferer who is AA or AS and then inject it into the system particularly the bone marrow of the SS sufferer thereby activating his/her system.
“This process will also be combined with chemotherapy and the injected stem cells will now be rooted into the system and multiply in the bone marrow so the SS cells will have no option but to die off.”
She however said this process can only be done with a lot of precaution.
“The patient will be kept in an exclusive well air-conditioned and confined environment for three months where he/she can only be seen by the doctors and nurses. By the end of that, the sickle cell would have died off and then the patient becomes transformed to either AS or AA depending on where the stem cell is coming from,” Mrs Rose said.
The NABDA director further noted that children have better chances of surviving this method as their genes are still in the development stage.
“This method has being tried in Nigeria and it worked. The two successful patients are children. Normally the chances of survival is more in children below the age of 10 but for adults its a 50/50 chance and if you are not careful, the patient might die because during that chemotherapy process, a lot changes like hair loss and weight loss occur.”
Sickle cell anaemia is an inherited form of anaemia — a condition in which there are not enough healthy red blood cells to carry adequate oxygen throughout your body.
Nigeria has the highest burden of Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) in the world and is also the top sickle cell endemic country in Africa, with an annual infant death of about 150,000 representing more than 8 per cent of infant mortality in the country.
At least 100,000 babies die from sickle cell disorder in Nigeria every year according to 2014 statistics by the World Health Organisation (WHO), making it the number one sickle-cell endemic country in Africa.
Any breakthrough in finding lasting solutions to both terminal diseases will mark a huge relief to millions of sufferers in Nigeria and beyond.