A pioneering team of scientists in China, headed by oncologist Lu You, are set to trial a gene editing technique known as CRISPR-Cas9 on lung cancer patients, potentially at the end of this year.

CRISPR (pronounced ‘crisper’) is the acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. In essence, a repeating string of genes contained within DNA (of any species), serving as a catalogue of genetic defects caused by viruses or cancers. In most cases the immune system uses this catalogue to recognise and target these harmful effects on the body. However, as wondrous and complex  as it is, like everything human, the immune system is fallible and can be overwhelmed or more insidiously, deceived by cancerous or virally infected cells causing immune cells to ignoring them as though they were healthy cells.

This is where Cas9, consisting of two components, comes in. A ‘guide’ RNA molecule containing a matching code to that of the genetic defect; itself contained within a scaffold, binds it to the defect. This ‘guide’ acts as a beacon for the second component; an artificially modified Cas9 protein which functions like a pair of molecular scissors able to create snips either side of the faulty part of the DNA sequence.

Once the cut has been made and the defect removed the cell will then attempt to fix itself. In the case of viruses, a marker can be left behind for the immune system to be able to recognise it and act against it.

The trial that Lu You is set to perform will involve extracting from a Lung Cancer patient, T-Cells which form part of the adaptive response of the immune system. These cells will then be edited using CRISPR-Cas9 to knock out a protein that prevents the antibody from targeting ‘healthy’ cells. The theory being that once these cells are reintroduced back into the patient they will then target the cancerous cells. Further evolution of this technique could be used to target multiple age related illnesses and eventually stop the mechanisms of aging altogether.

If the trial proves successful, it will provide another endorsement in what many consider a controversial field.

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