Pioneering gene editing technology, CRISPR, promises to cure a host of diseases. However, two separate studies reveal that it could also boost the risk of cancer.
Two separate teams of researchers, from the University of Helsinki and the Karolinska Institutet and the Novartis Research Institute, studied a protein called p53 and its relation with CRISPR-Cas9 technology.
The p53 prevents tumor development in the body. It normally acts when a DNA in the body gets damaged. Hence, this healing nature of p53 also gets activated when CRISPR edits a gene in the body.
Essentially, p53 perceived an edited DNA as a "damaged DNA." It naturally jumps into action and causes for the edited gene to self-destruct.
If in case the edited gene overpowered the p53's natural defense mechanism, the p53 would be dysfunctional. Unfortunately, dysfunctional p53 is attributed to many types of cancer.
P53 And CRISPR-Cas9
In the study published on June 11 in Nature Medicine, researchers from University of Helsinki and the Karolinska Institutet reported that CRISPR-Cas9 activated the protein p53. However, once the protein gets activated, it lessens the effect of CRISPR-Cas9. On the other hand, if p53 is absent, cancerous cells could grow uncontrollably.
"By picking cells that have successfully repaired the damaged gene we intended to fix, we might inadvertently also pick cells without functional p53", explained Dr. Emma Haapaniemi, the first author of the study.
"If transplanted into a patient, as in gene therapy for inherited diseases, such cells could give rise to cancer risk, raising concerns for the safety of CRISPR-based gene therapies."
A similar result was also detailed in the study from Novartis, which was also published on June 11 in the same journal.
Dysfunctional p53 are known to cause ovarian cancer, breast cancer, colorectal cancer, lung cancer, and pancreatic, stomach, and liver cancers.
Calls For More Research On CRISPR Technology
Jussi Taipale, the lead researcher and a professor at the University of Helsinki, acknowledged that CRISPR-Cas9 could potentially cure many diseases as what the technology promised. However, he believed that more research on its potential side effects should be conducted alongside studies to prove its efficacy.
Taipale clarified that the study was not aimed at invalidating the potential of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology. What the study wanted to emphasize is that medical breakthroughs could always bring along unwanted side effects.
In the case of their study, Taipale highlighted that proponents of CRISPR should consider how p53 is critical in enhancing the safety of CRISPR-Cas9 therapies.