Science 5 min read

Are CRISPR-Cas9 & Gene Editing the New "Vaccine"?

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ulleo |

Biophysicists have found the gene module that causes cancer to become malignant.

I think it’s safe to say that curing cancer is a bit of a holy grail when it comes to medical research. But what are we willing to do to finish that quest?

As it turns out, we may have to do something that seems a bit scary. I’m talking about gene editing, and the poster child for gene editing these days is CRISPR-Cas9.

We’ve covered CRISPR pretty extensively here at Edgy Labs, so I’ll skip the long-form explanation. If you need to catch up, you can check out this guide.

Gene editing is a touchy subject, though. To get an idea of the specific opinions of Americans on the subject, read this article.

If we learned anything from the Star Trek movies (new and old), it’s that there are some things better left untouched. Don’t tell that to China, though, as reports about CRISPR use on pigs and humans have been in circulation for at least a year.

We’re on the precipice of a moral situation in medical technology, and it’s time we face the facts. Gene editing may even get us closer to a real solution for cancer.

Gene editing is here, it's real, and it could help cure cancer. #butshouldwedoit? #goforCRISPRClick To Tweet

Recently, scientists have found the specific gene module for the metastatic spread of tumor cells.

Gene Editing, Gene Modules, and You

Let’s take a trip to the University of California San Diego. There, bioengineers and bioinformaticians have discovered new information about metastatic behavior in cancer cells.

Metastasis is the most lethal part of cancer. It causes about 90 percent of cancer-related deaths. Until now, we haven’t understood certain things about metastasis, but the researchers UC San Diego may have changed that.

They discovered a set of genes, called a gene module, that could help predict whether tumors will metastasize in nine types of cancer. That knowledge could lead to better diagnoses for cancer patients, helping inform them and their doctors when choosing treatments.

“Breast cancer cell are grown in a highly dense 3-D collagen matrix. After 7 days the cells form networks that resemble the early stages of blood vessel development. Images show representative structures observed in these environments after satining for cells nuclei (blue) and the cell’s cytoskeleton (green). Similar structures have been observed in tumor patient samples and have been referred to as vasculogenic mimicry.” | University of California San Diego

The discovery was made by placing malignant cells in a custom 3D matrix and observing the results. This matrix was special as it mimicked the conditions within the human body instead of within a petri dish.

Researchers found that the cells formed faux blood vessels in response to the matrix. Furthermore, this phenomenon happened independently from the other features of the matrix.

So what does this tell us? Well, two things:

First, cancer cells are reactive to their environment. Put them in a petri dish, and they act differently than if they were in conditions more like an actual human body.

Second, we can target the genes responsible for metastasis. Theoretically, this means that we could attack the problem there and make cancer less lethal.

Will we let CRISPR CAS9 Into our Lives?

Let’s be perfectly clear on something here. Cancer is just one in a long line of diseases that CRISPR could address.

Here at Edgy Labs, we’ve reported on all kinds of diseases and conditions that the treatment could help with ranging from sickle cell disease to mental illness.

We’ve even talked about how gene editing could overcome the rising problem of superbugs that can resist antibiotics.

It’s no secret that CRISPR is an interesting technology, but there is a potential dark side. Like all technology, CRISPR is a tool, and a tool is only as morally good or bad as its user.

When I discuss this amongst my friends and family, the first thing that comes up is availability. If CRISPR can cure so many diseases and conditions, that’s great. But what if only a few can afford such treatment? How far could gene editing go if only a select few have access to it?

What would H.G. Wells think? Would we potentially be laying the foundation for the kind of future with Morlocks and Eloi?

Personally, I don’t think that we’re going in that direction. As I said before, technology is a tool, no more good or bad than its user. CRISPR isn’t the only tech where we need to make that kind of consideration, after all (we’re looking at you, AI).

Do you think that in the future it will be commonplace to use gene therapy and systems like CRISPR to treat and prevent disease?

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William McKinney

William is an English teacher, a card carrying nerd, And he may run for president in 2020. #truefact #voteforedgy

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