US cancer scientists on the verge of gene editing breakthrough to treat cancer

Doctors at the University of Pennsylvania Abramson Cancer Centre say it could hail a new era of treatments

A scientist loads Cas9 protein and PCSK9 sgRNA molecules into a fine glass pipette at a laboratory in Shenzhen, China. Researchers in the US are studying how Crispr molecular scissors could be used to fight cancer. AP
Powered by automated translation

A DNA editing tool used to snip defective genes in unborn children is being tested in the United States to fight cancer.

For the first time outside of China, tests on three patients with advanced cancer were conducted to see how effective DNA-snipping tool Crispr is at fighting the disease.

Doctors at the University of Pennsylvania Abramson Cancer Centre used the technology on patients in their 60s whose cancer had progressed despite undergoing regular treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.

“It’s the most complicated genetic, cellular engineering that’s been attempted so far,” said study leader Dr Edward Stadtmauer, the centre’s section chief of hematologic malignancies.

“This is proof that we can safely do gene editing of these cells.”

The technique extracts immune cells from the patient's blood and genetically alters them to recognise and fight cancer cells.

Experts said early tests proved to be safe, and that a breakthrough could hail a new era of potential cancer treatments.

Two of the patients had blood cancer and the other had a rarer form of sarcoma, cancer of the bone or soft tissue.

Although yet to be published in a peer-reviewed medical journal, the findings will be presented at the American Society of Hematology in December.

Researchers said the exercise at this stage was focused on whether the technology is safe and feasible, rather than improving survival rates. It is too early to say whether the treatment will improve survival rates.

The use of Crispr technology in China to edit the genes of couples experiencing fertility problems has been controversial.

The editing tool alters a defective gene in IVF embryos to eliminate life-limiting or chronic illnesses such as sickle cell disease, which starves the body of oxygen.

Some doctors have criticised the early use of the molecular scissors in fertility clinics as the long term effects are not yet known, with potential damage caused to other genes during the treatment.