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In first, US doctors try CRISPR gene editing for cancer treatment

  • Published at 10:03 pm November 17th, 2019
US doctors try CRISPR
Genetic engineering, gene manipulation concept, hand is replacing part of a DNA molecule Bigstock

Doctors at the University of Pennsylvania Abramson Cancer Centre used the technology on patients in their 60s whose cancer had progressed despite undergoing regular treatments

A DNA editing tool used to snip defective genes in unborn children is being tested in the United States to fight cancer, New York Times reported.

For the first time outside of China, tests on three patients with advanced cancer were conducted to see how effective DNA-snipping tool CRISPR-Cas9 (CRISPR), a technology that can be used to edit genes, is at fighting the disease.

Doctors at the University of Pennsylvania Abramson Cancer Centre used the technology on patients in their 60s whose cancer had progressed despite undergoing regular treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, the New York Times said.

“It’s the most complicated genetic, cellular engineering that’s been attempted so far,” the centre’s Section Chief of Hematologic Malignancies Dr Edward Stadtmauer told the NY Times.

“This is proof that we can safely do gene editing of these cells.”

The technique extracts immune cells from the patient’s blood and genetically alters them to recognize and fight cancer cells.

The newspaper said early tests proved to be safe, and that a breakthrough could hail a new era of potential cancer treatments, quoting experts.

Two of the patients had blood cancer and the other had a rare form of sarcoma, cancer of the bone or soft tissue.

Although yet to be published in a peer-reviewed medical journal, the findings will be presented at the American Society of Hematology in December. The research was paid for by the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy and the company Tmunity. 

Researchers said the exercise at this stage was focused on whether the technology is safe and feasible, rather than improving survival rates. It is too early to say whether the treatment will improve survival rates.

The use of CRISPR technology in China to edit the genes of couples experiencing fertility problems has been controversial.

The editing tool alters a defective gene in IVF embryos to eliminate life-limiting or chronic illnesses such as sickle cell disease, which starves the body of oxygen.

Some doctors have criticized the early use of the molecular scissors in fertility clinics as the long term effects are not yet known, with potential damage caused to other genes during the treatment.