CRISPR is by all accounts a fascinating technology. Its headline feature is that it can literally be used to slice, dice, and otherwise manipulate the body’s genetic code—functions that could carry staggering implications for treating everything from inherited disorders to cancer to HIV/AIDS one day.
Now, new (though extremely early) research suggests that CRISPR could be used to vastly improve upon a new form of cancer-fighting methods that turn the body’s own immune T cells into specially targeted killers that attack cancerous tissue.
If this technique sounds generally familiar, it’s because a pair of therapies from drug giants Novartis and Gilead called Kymriah and Yescarta, part of a new class known as CAR-T, were approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last year. Those treatments involve extracting immune T cells, re-engineering them in a lab to home in on cancers, multiplying them, and then inserting them back into patients’ bodies. The results can be staggering for certain hard-to-treat blood cancer patients.
But that T cell re-engineering process is stymied by the need to use “viral vectors”—an expensive and expansive biological constraint that, simply put, slows down the ability to insert beneficial DNA into an immune cell and the amount of genomic data that can be repurposed for cancer-killing purposes. The experimental technique being tested by UCLA and UCSF scientists (backed by the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, established by tech entrepreneur and philanthropist Sean Parker) could theoretically bypass those constraints and create a cheaper, faster, and more efficient process for manufacturing cancer hunters out of a patient’s own biology by modifying certain cells’ building blocks.
And it has implications beyond cancer, too. The “cut and paste” system uses an electrical field to facilitate the rapid removal and replacement of DNA, which could eventually help fight infectious, hereditary, and other diseases as well.
“This is a rapid, flexible method that can be used to alter, enhance, and reprogram T cells so we can give them the specificity we want to destroy cancer, recognize infections, or tamp down the excessive immune response seen in autoimmune disease,” said UCSF’s Alex Marson, senior author of the new study, in a statement. “Now we’re off to the races on all these fronts.”
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