New cancer CRISPR treatment sees patients’ immune system attack tumors

The new technology has been called a "leap forward."
Loukia Papadopoulos
T-cells attacking cancer cells.jpg
T-cells attacking cancer cells.


There may be renewed hope for people with untreatable cancers. According to a report published by the BBC on Friday, patients have had their immune system hacked and redesigned to attack their own tumors.

A personalized treatment developed for each patient

The experimental study had 16 test subjects, each with a personalized treatment developed just for them. The research has been called a "leap forward" and a "powerful" demonstration of the potential of DNA editing technology.

“What we’re trying to do is really harness every patient’s tumor-specific mutations,” Stefanie Mandl, chief scientific officer at Pact Pharma and an author on the study, told Wired.

The work is centered around T-cells, parts of the immune system that patrol the body and inspect other cells for issues. They do so using proteins, referred to as receptors, to spot cells that have deviated from their natural roles and become cancerous. 

Cancers are notoriously complicated for T-cells to identify because they consist of a corrupted version of people’s own cells. “As soon as the cancer gets complicated and develops its own architecture and a microenvironment and all sorts of defense mechanisms, then it becomes harder for the immune system to tackle it,” Waseem Qasim, professor of cell and gene therapy at the Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health at University College London, told Wired

New cancer CRISPR treatment sees patients’ immune system attack tumors

The new therapy aims to increase the level of T-cells in patients’ bodies to better allow them to spot the disease.

The researchers achieved this by examining patient's blood for the rare T-cells that already had receptors which could sniff out their cancer. They then turned their attention to other T-cells that could not find the cancer and redesigned them to make them adept at this task. 

They did this by replacing their original receptors with those from the cancer-seeking T-cells and putting them back into the patients to search for and attack tumors. They essentially created receptors that can hunt cancer. 

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Considerable genetic manipulation

This was no easy feat and required substantial genetic manipulation to both remove the genetic instructions that T-cells carried for developing their old receptors, and give them the instructions for the new ones. This was made possible through the gene-editing technology CRISPR.  

CRISPR stands for “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats” and is a technology that enables scientists to edit the DNA of any genome. By editing DNA, scientists can alter certain characteristics of an organism. 

However, the treatment still has a long way to go before it can be used on larger populations. “There’s no one-size-fits-all treatment for cancer,” said Qasim. “What these kinds of studies hope to demonstrate is that each tumor is different. It’s a guided missile type of treatment, rather than a big blast approach.” 

Still, for those suffering from rare untreatable cancers, the technology offers hope of a brighter tomorrow where a cure can possibly be genetically engineered. 

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