Cancer is one of the greatest threats to human health today. It is notoriously difficult to treat, particularly in its advanced stages. What’s more, the treatment for cancer also often comes with a range of side effects. In fact, in some cases, it can cause so much damage to a person’s body, that they die from the treatment rather than the disease itself.
Even if a patient does not die during their cancer treatment, they are often left with lasting side effects. These could include heart, lung, or endocrine system issues, immunodeficiency, digestive issues, and infertility, among others .
For this reason, medical scientists are constantly trying to develop new cancer treatments that have fewer or no side effects, or that may one day cure the disease. Scientists in Israel believe they have done just that with their CRISPR-Cas 9 gene editing system.
What is CRISPR-Cas9?
CRISPR-Cas9 is a genome-editing tool that allows geneticists to edit parts of the genome. They do this by removing, adding, or altering sections of the DNA sequence. It is a very simple, versatile, and precise method of genetic manipulation.
The CRISPR-Cas9 system consists of two molecules that cause a change or mutation in the DNA sequence:
- Cas9: this is an enzyme that acts as a pair of “molecular scissors”. It can cut two strands of DNA at a specific location in the genome, which allows scientists to add or remove pieces of DNA.
- Guide RNA (gRNA): This contains a small piece of predesigned RNA sequence within a longer RNA scaffold. The scaffold part binds to DNA and then the sequence guides the Cas9 to the correct spot on the genome. This ensures that the Cas9 cuts the right point on the genome .
CRISPR-Cas9 and Cancer
Researchers from Tel Aviv University in Israel recently published research in the journal Science Advances in which they used the system to treat cancer. Although they used animals for the study, they believe that CRISPR-Cas9 will be an effective cancer treatment for humans as well .
Professor Dan Peer describes it as a “more elegant form” of chemotherapy and says that the process has no side effects. What’s more, he says that the researchers believe that when they treat cancer in this way it will never become active again.
“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,” he said .
He added that the technology can extend the life expectancy of cancer patients. The researchers are hoping that they will one day be able to use this technique to actually cure the disease.
“This technology can physically cut the DNA in cancerous cells, and those cells will not survive,” he explained .
The team tested the procedure on hundreds of mice who had two of the most aggressive types of cancer- glioblastoma and metastatic ovarian cancer. After treatment, mice had double the life expectancy as the control group and a thirty percent higher survival rate .
The Future of Cancer Treatment
Peer is hoping that eventually, this treatment will replace chemotherapy. Because doctors can only administer chemo to the entire body, it can have devastating side effects. This treatment is much more specific, and thus much better for the patient’s health.
Currently, medical scientists only use CRISPR-Cas9 for rare diseases on cells that they’ve already removed from the body. Peer and his team are hoping to develop the treatment so that it will be effective against all cancers. If everything goes according to plan, they should be ready to use the technique on humans within two years.
Peer says that they will use a biopsy to customize the treatment to each individual patient. They will administer it either as a general injection or an injection directly on the tumor. They will choose their method based on what is suitable in each situation.
“The technology needs to be further developed, but the main thing is we have shown that this can kill cancer cells,” he said .
He notes that when they first spoke twelve years ago of treatments with messenger RNA, many people did not think it was possible. They believed it was science fiction.
“I believe that in the near future, we will see many personalized treatments based on genetic messengers, for cancer and various genetic diseases.” 
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