Scientists Use CRISPR To Engineer Cancer Cells That Kill Own Tumor

Cancer cells typically have a “re-homing” behavior in which the cells that have metastasized return to the original tumor. Scientists took advantage of this trait to use CRISPR-engineered cells to turn against their own kind.  ( Pixabay )

Can cancer cells be designed to turn against their own kind? Scientists from Boston took advantage of cancer cells’ typical behavior and used CRISPR technology in hopes of destroying the main tumor with its own cells.

Cancer Cell Assassins

Researchers from the Brigham and Women’s Hospital recently reported a significant step that they have taken in the fight against cancer, and they were able to achieve this by taking advantage of the cancer cells’ own typical behavior. Normally, cancer cells have a “self-homing” behavior wherein the cells that have metastasized or spread into other parts of the body can track the main tumor and other cells of their own kind.

Using CRISPR gene editing in their mouse study, researchers introduced S-TRAIL, a protein that kills various types of cancer cells and is not toxic to healthy cells, into the cancer cells from the mice and then transferred them back into the body. The idea is that these CRISPR-engineered cells can then kill the other cancer cells that they encounter but also have a so-called “suicide switch” that makes them kill themselves before they can begin to spread or develop tumors of their own.

The team used the CRISPR approach to introduce S-TRAIL to the cancer cells using two methods and found that in mice with primary brain cancer, recurrent brain cancer, and breast cancer that had metastasized to the brain, the engineered cells that were re-introduced to the body went directly to the tumors and also killed the cancer cells. Both types of engineered cells were able to significantly reduce tumor size in the mice that got the treatment compared to the mice that didn’t. Furthermore, researchers also reported that the mice that got the treatment lived longer as well.

Closer To A Cure?

Do the results of the study show that science is one step closer to a cure? Perhaps, but there are various roadblocks that the therapy might still have to face. For instance, this is not the first time that cancer cells’ re-homing behavior was used to kill the cells. Previous studies also used cancer-killing viruses or cells with a suicide switch, but treatment success has yet to be found.

Further, there is still a lot of testing to be done before the method could even become an approved cancer therapy. For one thing, there is still no guarantee that the treatment will be as effective in humans as it was for mice.

That said, the team is not deterred by the roadblocks. In fact, study lead Khalid Shah, MS, PHD, and his team are planning to create a start-up that focuses on turning cancer cells into the tumors’ own killers. Further, he also states that even after submitting their results for publication, the team has already gathered strong evidence of just how well the method works in attacking and killing cancer cells.

“Our study demonstrates the therapeutic potential of using engineered tumor cells and their self-homing properties for developing receptor-targeted therapeutics for various cancers,” said Shah.

The study is published in Science Translational Medicine.

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