New research on gene editing technology for cancer suggests that it could be the key to one day curing intractable cancers like malignant mesothelioma.
Researchers at Tel Aviv University have used a technology called CRISPR to dramatically extend the lives of mice with some of the most serious kinds of cancer.
Gene editing technology alters the genes of cancer cells so they cannot replicate. The Israeli team found a way to make it target cancer cells.
It could be the breakthrough that many mesothelioma doctors have been hoping for.
Genes and Mesothelioma
The genetic material inside a person’s cells determines how those cells will behave. Genes encode for proteins which give signals to cells. Gene editing technology aims to change how cells behave.
In the case of a cancer like pleural mesothelioma, the DNA does not work correctly. It does not tell cells to function, grow, and replicate normally. Instead, it tells them to grow out of control.
Sometimes a person is born with the propensity for damaged DNA. Other times, the DNA damage occurs because of some outside factor. In mesothelioma patients, DNA damage usually occurs because of asbestos exposure.
Asbestos fibers cause chronic inflammation and irritation of the cells on the mesothelial membrane. After many years of this, some of those cells can turn into malignant mesothelioma. Most patients get sick and die very quickly. There is no cure for this cancer.
How CRISPR Gene Editing Technology Works
CRISPR stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. It allows researchers to alter DNA sequences to impact how cells behave. Scientists often describe this gene editing technology like using tiny “scissors” on the DNA.
The biggest challenge with CRISPR is targeting the right cells. If it damages the DNA in healthy cells, the patient could get very sick. But if it damages the DNA inside mesothelioma cells, it could slow or stop the spread of cancer.
The Israeli researchers say they found a way to target cancer cells with the gene editing technology. They put RNA “messengers” inside a nanoparticle built from lipids. Then they showed these messengers how to “recognize” cancer cells.
Right now, the gene editing technology is only used for certain rare diseases and only on cells outside the body. The team used the system on hundreds of live mice with glioblastoma brain cancer or metastatic brain cancer. Like pleural mesothelioma, both of these cancers have a very poor survival rate. But mice that got the new treatment lived twice as long as the control group.
“This is the first study in the world to prove that the CRISPR genome editing system, which works by cutting DNA, can effectively be used to treat cancer in an animal,” researcher Dan Peer told The Times of Israel. “The technology needs to be further developed, but the main thing is we have shown that this can kill cancer cells.”
Mice treated with the gene editing technology had no side effects. Peer said human trials could come within two years.
Rosenblum, D, et al, “CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing using targeted lipid nanoparticles for cancer therapy”, November 18, 2020, Science Advances, https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/6/47/eabc9450
Jeffay, Nathan, “With new ‘elegant chemo,’ Israeli scientists edit genome to destroy cancer DNA”, November 19, 2020, https://www.timesofisrael.com/with-new-elegant-chemo-israeli-scientists-edit-genome-to-destroy-cancer-dna/