In what could prove to be a breakthrough in the treatment of brain cancer, a group of scientists has discovered that the gene-editing software CRISPR enabled them to shut down brain cancer’s immortality switch.
The immortality switch
The research team, led by the neurosurgery expert Joseph Costello, studied glioblastoma brain cancer cells extracted from cancer patients. They discovered that a protein called GABP was responsible for controlling the immortality switch of the cancerous cells.
When a certain element of the protein was removed, the cells stopped their uncontrollable multiplication and started behaving like normal cells. Once the experiment was successful in lab dishes, the team tested it out on mice and found success.
The GABP protein is a common protein that is used by a variety of cells in the body. As such, the researchers could not remove the protein completely. So, they used the gene editing tool CRISPR to remove only the GABPbeta1L element from the protein.
“These findings suggest that the beta1L subunit is a promising new drug target for aggressive glioblastoma and potentially the many other cancers with TERT promoter mutations,” Live Science quotes Costello from a press conference.
The experiment underlines how important CRISPR is becoming in medical research, opening up new possibilities to find treatments for medical conditions that would have been impossible or time-consuming to find using regular methods.
The amazing possibilities of CRISPR
When CRISPR was invented, people were apprehensive about its usage. Even its co-inventor, Jenniffer Doudna, advised caution when using the technology.
“CRISPR gives us the power to radically and irreversibly alter the biosphere that we inhabit by providing a way to rewrite the very molecules of life any way we wish. It’s a thrilling moment in the life sciences, but we can’t let ourselves get carried away. It’s important to remember that, while CRISPR has enormous and undeniable potential to improve our world, tinkering with the genetic underpinnings of our ecosystem could also have unintended consequences,” Fast Company quotes Doudna.
However, as Costello’s research team shows, CRISPR is proving to be an invaluable tool in the scientific field. In fact, applications of CRISPR go far beyond just finding cures for diseases.
CRISPR can be used to resurrect extinct species. Harvard geneticist George Church had announced in 2017 that his team was on schedule to developing an embryo for a hybrid of an elephant and its extinct cousin, the woolly mammoth. The team has already achieved partial success in growing a mouse embryo within an artificial womb.
CRISPR can also play a big role in ensuring the food security of the human race. Scientists from New York’s Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory have invented a method to edit the genes of tomato plants to ensure that they offer more yield per acre. Gene edited varieties of mushrooms, corn, and other crops are also in development.
Another application of CRISPR would be in eradicating harmful pests. For instance, a team of researchers from Imperial College London has found a way of using CRISPR to control the population of malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
On the flipside, the move to control vast populations of pests, no matter how harmful they are for human beings, can end up seriously disturbing the ecological balance. It might result in far worse problems than those that exist now. As such, this is one field where CRISPR needs to be used with the caution that Doudna warned us about.