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Study: CRISPR may have cracked cancer’s “immortality switch”

Study: CRISPR may have cracked cancer’s “immortality switch”
[Photo: Jaron Nix/Unsplash]

CRISPR might be en route to halting the progress of certain aggressive cancers.

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A new study finds that the gene editing tool is capable of limiting a common protein that enables cancer cells to keep reproducing. More than 50 types of cancers possess an “immortality switch” that essentially lets them divide indefinitely. This includes the brain cancer that John McCain suffered from. But a research team led by Joseph Costello, a professor of neurosurgery and neuro-oncology expert at the University of California, San Francisco, studied glioblastoma brain cancer cells and was able to isolate the GABP protein, which is responsible for enabling cancer cells to activate the endless multiplying. They removed the protein, and the cancer cells “behaved like mere-mortal cells,” reports LiveScience.

“This was really intriguing to us,” Costello said in a press statement. “You can’t create a drug to target a promoter itself, but if we could identify how GABP was binding to the mutated promoter in these cancers, we might have a remarkably powerful new drug target.”

Moving forward, the team intends to develop a drug that could inhibit just that tiny segment of GABP, so as to halt the aggressive growth switch.

Despite alarms about the potential dangers of CRISPR, the technology has mostly been heralded for its ability to transform medicine and agriculture, and do things like save the banana from extinction and engineer malaria-resistant mosquitoes (and, well, its supposed promise to bring back the woolly mammoth). It’s seen high-profile investors such as Bill Gates and Sean Parker, while pharmaceutical companies eagerly donated millions to research causes.

In a previous interview with Fast Company, CRISPR coinventor Jennifer Doudna discussed the possibilities–both good and bad–that the technology offers. Curing cancer is one thing, but what are the ethical complications, for example, of using CRISPR to “humanize” various genes in pigs for organ donation?

“CRISPR gives us the power to radically and irreversibly alter the biosphere that we inhabit by providing a way to rewrite the very molecules of life any way we wish,” says Doudna. “It’s a thrilling moment in the life sciences, but we can’t let ourselves get carried away. It’s important to remember that, while CRISPR has enormous and undeniable potential to improve our world, tinkering with the genetic underpinnings of our ecosystem could also have unintended consequences.”

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