Gene editing is one of the most exciting and interesting fields of study being explored today. I think one of the main reasons it captures my fascination so much is not only because of its medical implications, but also because it deals with the fundamental building blocks of life and adaptation. It is a symphony of complex biological process that although wondrous and beautiful can sometimes go wrong.
Cancer has been a deadly disease for as long as there has been recorded human history. Somewhere in the symphony of our constant reproduction of the cells that make us up an instrument can go out of tune. It’s rarely the same instrument and almost never happens in the same way, which only further adds to the complexity of trying to pin down the error and figure out how to stop it. Where the musical analogy falls short is a poor orchestral performance compared to a slow eroding deterioration of those unlucky enough to suffer through their own biology failing them. I know a few victims, and I’m sure you do too. There’s about 600,000 a year. But maybe it’s not bad luck, or at least, not completely.
CRISPR and Cancer May Come Down to Genetics
Recently I’ve learned a bit about the study of Oncogenes; which is looking closely at genes that, under certain circumstances, can transform a cell into a tumor cell. It’s still a frontier in the long history of cancer research, but it’s a surprising one. Some of its key efforts started as early as 2006, dubbed The Cancer Genome Atlas Program. Over the last dozen years the project has generated 2.5 petabytes of genomic, epigenomic, transcriptomic, and proteomic data. To quote the site. What that data indicated is that cancer can be genetic and what it has set in motion is a collective of scientists the world over better armed to fight cancer, and they’re taking advantage of it.
We are narrowing down which genes but it’s been slow
In February of 2018 a super team of scientists out of Yale, Cambridge, and MIT, published an article in American Association for the Advancement of Science detailing a compelling study on oncogenes in mice. Normally, such a study would be incredibly laboured. It would involve taking mice, breeding them into subsets of control tests and mutated mice, and walking them each individually through their life cycles to study the effects of the mutations. It sounds simple, but what makes this method of research so painstaking is the microenvironment in which these mice live. Over the course of the rodents life many things about the intentions of their genetic editing can change through random mutation and other environmental factors. As such effectively studying individual genes for their contribution in creating cancer was limited to only a handful at a time. Which to use another analogy would be like a snail trying to circle the globe.
CRISPR May Help Speed Up Cancer Research
So, until now, research in this field has moved at a snail’s pace. With the introduction of on the fly genetic editing though, things are picking up a serious head of steam. CRISPR accomplishes what long hours of dedicated selective breeding and manipulation does in a fraction of the time and with less variance. I’m guessing you’re already familiar but just in case you’re not CRISPR is a gene editing tool that once injected can change the DNA of a targeted tissue through what amounts to basically microscopic cellular surgery. With it, we are breaking new ground on what’s possible and in this case we are making the impractical a walk in the park.
Armed with the tool to make it happen at a reasonable rate the team was able to successfully develop cancer in mine through genetic alteration to the liver. This may seem counterproductive, but the understanding of just how cancer begins is valuable knowledge in the ongoing war to fight it. In the near future I predict several breakthroughs concerning genetic indicators for cancer will be made and less people will have to suffer and die in a battle with it.