CRISPR gene editing is a revolutionary new medical technology that makes it possible to edit strands of DNA. The technique is already being used with great success to treat certain types of cancer, but its potential long-term consequences aren’t fully known. In conducting due diligence on the new CRISPR technology, researchers at Tel Aviv University examined whether editing DNA in this way could lead to an increased risk of cancer.
CRISPR-Cas9 is Highly Effective
Researchers are developing several specific CRISPR gene editing techniques. The most established thus far is CRISPR-Cas9, which was approved for the very first CRISPR clinical trial in 2020.
CRISPR-Cas9 infuses a patient suffering from blood cancer with modified donor T-cells. The T-cells are bioengineered so that they have a particular receptor that targets certain blood cancer cells. The technique helps these T-cells attack cancer, while not attacking the body as they otherwise might if not modified.
The CRISPR-Cas9 method has proven effective for several cancers that the bioengineered receptor matches. It’s also the fastest, cheapest and most accurate way to genome editing method. The combination of speed, affordability and accuracy make this particular CRISPR technique a frontrunner for the potential treatment of many cancers.
CRISPR Mimics Natural Body Processes
Although CRISPR-Cas9 bioengineered T-cells while they’re outside of the body, the technique is modeled on processes that naturally occur within the body.
When a foreign virus enters the body, immune system cells capture a short strand of the virus’ DNA. The cells then insert the strand of DNA in themselves, which allows the cells to recognize that virus again in the future.
CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing is highly similar, in that T-cells are modified with DNA so they recognize cancer cells. One of the main differences is that the cells are modified to recognize cancer cells rather than everyday viruses.
Researchers Investigate Potential for Cancer
Despite being based on a natural process, researchers wanted to investigate whether the technique could lead to an increased risk of cancer. The study sought to quantify the rate of variance among modified T-cells.
Variations in cells are known to sometimes increase the risk of cancer. Thus, quantifying how many variant T-cells CRISPR gene editing generates could indicate whether the treatment can lead to an increased risk of cancer.
The study found that up to 10% of the treated cells sustained a significant loss of genetic material, and thus were variants. The rates of variance differed among several different chromosomes that were studied, with some chromosomes evidencing only a 5% variance rate.
Unsurprisingly, the rate of variance increased as more modifications were made simultaneously. A single modification created half as many variants, as a double or triple modification did.
The natural process that CRISPR gene editing is based on also leads to variant cells. The question researchers had was whether CRISPR editing had higher variant rates.
Study Found an Increased Risk of Cancer
The researchers concluded that CRISPR gene editing’s variant rates were elevated compared to what naturally occurs within the body. Thus, the technique could theoretically lead to an increased risk of cancer.
Researchers Reiterated the Value of CRISPR Gene Editing
Even after concluding that CRISPR gene editing does come with an increased risk of cancer, researchers still emphatically underscored the importance and usefulness of the medical technology.
Any treatment’s side effects must be considered in the context of the treatment’s benefits. In the case of CRISPR, researchers determined that it’s still the best treatment for many cancers that it effectively combats. The benefits outweigh any increased cancer risk for many patients.