Genetic engineering is the branch of scientific research that gives medical experts the most hope because it promises to cure diseases such as cancer, HIV, and all kinds of organic deficiencies. A cutting-edge technique called CRISPR (crisper) is revolutionizing the field, and a recent study suggests that soon, we could cure cancer by editing our DNA with this novel tool.
The science and other stuff to know
CRISPR is an acronym for “groups of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.” The technique involves “editing” genomes based on a biological “copy and paste.” Roughly speaking, it could be said that it works as follows: an enzyme cuts a part of the genetic code that causes the condition to be eradicated, isolates it, and replaces it with the desired piece of genetic code.
This mechanism was observed in archaea and bacteria for the first time. They use this phenomenon to protect themselves from viruses by introducing pieces of genetic code from previous invaders in their DNA. When new invaders enter, the immune system recognizes at least part of its stored codes and responds by defending itself. This genetic memory was discovered in 2014 by researchers Emmanuelle Charpentier y Jennifer A. Doudna. Since then, CRISPR has reproduced this mechanism in animal and human genes, studying possible applications in bioengineering and clinical medicine.
A team of scientists led by Stephanie Mandl has just published an article in Nature detailing the clinical trial they carried out on 16 patients with different cancer tumors. They used CRISPR for the first time on human cancer tumors, obtaining encouraging results.
T cells are a type of white blood cell responsible for detecting abnormal presences in the body and alerting the immune system. Unfortunately, when cancer advances, it destroys the body’s defense mechanism, and the T cells can’t stop its spread. So these experts designed a T cell using CRISPR and administered it to patients. After one month, it was observed that 5 of the 16 patients showed signs of stagnation in the growth of their tumors.
The administered dose of T cells was low, as the researchers chose to amortize any potential adverse effects. However, the results are encouraging. “We just have to hit it harder next time,” Antoni Ribas, a co-author of the article, told Nature.
According to the World Health Organization, in 2020, there were around 20 million cancer cases globally, with breast, prostate, and lung cancer being the most recurrent. The highest mortality rate (2 million deaths per year) corresponds to lung cancer, whose leading causes are tobacco and air pollution.
Cancer is one of the most aggressive diseases and the most difficult to contain. Gene engineering with CRISPR may be the answer to this ancient siege.
Treatment with modified T cells has shown considerable benefits in treating leukemia and lymphatic cancer. Even so, the treatment of solid tumors still needs further investigation. In addition, since tumors do not allow T cells to penetrate them, it is necessary to develop methods that increase the effectiveness of the edited cells so that they can fight solid tumors.
Avery Posey, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, is optimistic about the future of the field. He says, “we will see very sophisticated ways to engineer immune cells in the next decade.”