Scientists Use CRISPR to Slow the Spread of Cancer Cells

Tuesday, June 6, 2017 - 13:36

Using the CRISPR genome editing technology, scientists from the University of Rochester have interrupted the cell cycle by targeting a protein responsible for preparing the cell for division, called Tudor-SN.

Science Alert reports that Tudor-SN influences the cell cycle by controlling microRNA, the molecules that fine tune the expression of thousands of genes.

"We know that Tudor-SN is more abundant in cancer cells than healthy cells, and our study suggests that targeting this protein could inhibit fast-growing cancer cells," says lead researcher, Reyad A. Elbarbary.

When Tudor-SN was removed from human cells, using using Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR), the level of microRNAs increases. With more microRNAs in the mix, it slows down the genes that encourage cell growth. With these genes hindered, the cell transitions slowly to the cell division phase of the cell cycle. The researchers used this approach to slow the growth of kidney and cervical cancer cells.

CRISPR is a technology derived from ancient bacterial defense mechanisms which allows for precise targeting and editing of certain locations in the genome sequence. According to Fransisco Mojica, who is credited with proposing the fundamental framework for the technology, CRISPRs serve as part of the bacterial immune system, defending against invading viruses. They consist of repeating sequences of genetic code, interrupted by “spacer” sequences – remnants of genetic code from past invaders. The system serves as a genetic memory that helps the cell detect and destroy invaders (called “bacteriophages”) when they return.

CRISPR spacer sequences are transcribed into short RNA sequences (“CRISPR RNAs” or “crRNA”) capable of guiding the system to matching sequences of DNA. When the target DNA is found, Cas9 – one of the enzymes produced by the CRISPR system – binds to the DNA and cuts it, shutting the targeted gene off. Using modified versions of Cas9, researchers can activate gene expression instead of cutting the DNA. These techniques allow researchers to study and modify the gene’s function.

The next step for the research is to work out how Tudor-SN functions in combination with other molecules and proteins. That way, scientists may be able to identify the most appropriate drugs to target it.

While the researchers admit that they have a long way to go before we see this technology being used in humans, any new approach that could provide a cure to the millions of people living with cancer is always welcome.

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