What seems like a work of science fiction is now closer than ever to becoming a reality…
Doctors at the University of Pennsylvania have proposed a study that will use a gene-editing technology known as clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, or CRISPR, on living subjects in an attempt to cure cancer.
After receiving the go-ahead from the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC) at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the study will focus on using the technology to treat three specific types of inherited cancer: myeloma, sarcoma, or melanoma.
Attacking Cancer with CRISPR
Essentially, researchers plan to implement these gene-editing techniques in order to create genetically altered immune cells that can more accurately fight tumors. The study will expand upon past research establishing that providing a patient’s T cells with a receptor for NY-ESO-1 allows immune cells to attack malignant tumors with the same protein.
Additionally, past trials have shown that certain tumor cells had the ability to hide from T Cells by switching on another protein called PD-1, which dampens the activity of cells after an immune response. Disrupting this protein with CRISPR technology means the tumors can be targeted more effectively.
Realizing the Potential of Gene-Editing
Although this technology is just gaining momentum in the U.S., a previous study conducted in the spring of 2015 by Chinese scientists had genetically modified 54 embryos using the CRISPR/Cas 9 method. Only twenty-eight of the embryos were successful, while nearly the other half of them failed.
Not surprising, the manipulation of human DNA remains a hot debate within the scientific and medical communities. This crusade against cancer is only one of the uses for CRISPR technology – others include editing mosquito populations to end diseases like Zika or even creating a yeast that excretes ethanol as a waste product.
On one hand, there’s the potential that babies born with CRISPR technology will never have to inherit a debilitating or life threatening disease from their parents – it will just be “snipped” out of their genetic code.
Opposition to the CRISPR method errs on the side of uncertainty and not knowing the full effects that messing with the genetic makeup of humans could have.
Rewriting the Book of Life
The University of Pennsylvania’s lead on the study, Dr. Carl June acknowledged that the technique itself is not perfect – sometimes proteins like PD-1 or TCR genes remain. Even though this gene-snipping technology is in its early stages of development, the benefits of its success could be revolutionary. Soon it may be that many horribly excruciating and debilitating illnesses are simply genetically “written” out of existence in our lifetime.
As of now, the study still needs clearance from the medical facilities that will host the experiments, as well as a nod from the FDA. Until then, regulators and geneticists will work to develop ways to control and implement this technology to the highest ethical standards – despite the fact that it may literally end up rewriting the rules of life itself.