Could CRISPR be used to fight cancer?

19 April 2016

Question

I have a few questions for Kat Arney regarding CRISPR and cancer. My questions involve a lot of assumptions on my part, so I apologize in advance if they don't make sense due to the assumptions I'm making.

Cancer cells have poorly or unregulated growth and reproduction. I assume this means that the genes that regulate growth and reproduction are damaged. Could CRISPR be used to attack cancer cells by looking for these damaged genes? Or can CRISPR only be used to detect positive matches of sequences as opposed to negative matches?

Could cancer cells from a person be extracted and sequenced and then have custom CRISPR created for them to attack the cancer cells?

Answer

Kat Arney put this question to Dr Nick Peel from Cancer Research UK...

Nick - The idea of editing out those kinds of faults in DNA that might lead to cancer is an exciting possibility, but one that's a lot further away from what the scientists are currently using CRISPR for. What they are doing is taking things like - we know a particular gene fault increases the risk of a certain type of cancer say, but we don't really know what it's doing; why it might be having that effect. So what we can do now is start to edit in those precise faults that you do see in people's own genomes and patient's genomes, and really start to see what effect that's having on those cells and build a clearer picture. If that then one day becomes something you can do in people is a much further away discussion.

Kat - I guess it's also very useful for building models of cancer. We've seen in the past few years how we've gone from having cancer cells growing in the lab, to bits of tumours transplanted into animals, to actually making genetically engineered mice that can carry the faults that lead them to develop cancers. I suppose CRISPR is revolutionary here in that you can precision engineer those faults rather than going through the long and tedious process of traditional genetic engineering in mice?

Nick - Absolutely. One of the problems with the older techniques was scientists were spending years, and years, and years, only ever kind of getting to the top level of understanding of what one gene might be doing. You can now engineer in multiple different faults in different genes. We know that cancer is a really complicated disease where it's a whole constellation of genetic changes that are going to be behind the disease, you can now start to piece that picture together inside a mouse, or a cell, or a relevant kind of model, and get a much better understanding of how the disease works.

Kat - Dr Nick Peel from Cancer Research UK and you can find his blog post all about CRISPR and cancer at: scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org.

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