Millions of people around the world are affected by cancer every day. However, a cure for cancer is yet to be found. Over the years, researchers have worked and found effective treatments to minimise or deal with the effects of cancer on the human body. New medicines, radiation and chemotherapy are widely used techniques in cancer treatment but none of these are side-effects-free.
A new ray of hope shined when scientists discovered the CRISPR genome editing tool which showed promising results in new gene and cell-based therapies to treat cancer.
How Does CRISPR Work?
CRISPR was inspired by nature, not unlike many other scientific or medical advancements. The idea of CRISPR was taken from a defence mechanism commonly found in some microbes like bacteria.
To keep themselves protected against invasion from other microbes or viruses, these microbes acquire snippets of an intruder’s DNA and store them as segments called CRISPRs (clustered interspersed short palindromic repeats). If the microbe is under attack from the same invader again, these CRISPRs help an enzyme called Cas to find and destroy the invader’s DNA.
Once this defence system was discovered, scientists realised that the system had the structure of a versatile gene-editing tool. With this new, exciting information, multiple groups of scientists around the world were successful in adapting the system to edit virtually any section of DNA, starting from other microbes and moving on to human cells.
In an ideal situation in a lab, the CRISPR tool consists of two main factors: a DNA-editing enzyme called Cas and a guide RNA. Scientists design the guide RNA to mirror the DNA of the target. The guide RNA then partners up with Cas which then leads Cas to the target. When the guide RNA reaches the target’s DNA, Cas can cut/destroy the DNA
Soon, this system started being used to detect specific targets like the DNA from cancer-causing viruses or RNA from cancer cells. Most recently, the CRISPR tool was also experimentally used to detect novel coronavirus. If approved, it will be used across major hospitals like the Adelaide Cancer Centre.
Why Is CRISPR Considered A Big Deal?
There are several reasons why the CRISPR tool is considered to be a game-changer in cancer treatments.
- Easy to use
- Completely customisable. Can virtually edit any segment of DNA
- More precise than other DNA-editing tools
- Gene editing is faster
- Can be easily scaled up. Hundreds of guide RNAs can be used to manipulate and evaluate thousands of genes at a time.
Future of CRISPR in Cancer Research: Is There a Cure on the Horizon?
CRISPR is coming to be known as the most powerful tool in developing cancer treatments. Scientists were worried about the off-target effects of this tool in its infancy but the research over the years has shown the specificity and efficacy of using CRISPR in the clinic.
While scientists are not saying CRISPR is the cure to cancer just yet, promising results from studies around the world indicate that it may be a powerful weapon in the fight against cancer in the future.