Irish scientists use CRISPR to unlock potential soft tissue cancer treatment

20 Nov 2018

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Using the gene-editing tool CRISPR, TCD scientists have discovered a potential therapy for one of the most common soft tissue cancers.

CRISPR as a technology has had its ups and downs over the past few years, with some hailing it as the answer to overcoming a number of life-threatening, hereditary conditions such as Huntington’s disease, while others suggest that most of us may have an immunity against its effects.

Now, the latest news from Trinity College Dublin (TCD) reveals that CRISPR has been used to develop a potential new treatment for synovial sarcoma, one of the most common soft tissue cancers in teenagers and young adults.

Current survival rates for the soft tissue cancer are quite low, at less than 50pc. Publishing the findings in eLife, the lead author of the study, Dr Gerard Brien, and the rest of his team believe this discovery could significantly improve a person’s chances.

Using CRISPR to screen for vulnerabilities in the genetics of the cancer, the scientists identified a protein called BRD9 as being essential for the survival of synovial sarcoma tumours. With this knowledge, they then worked on developing a range of new drugs designed to target this protein.

So far, pre-clinical trials in mice showed that the most refined drug was able to block tumour progression, whereas current treatments seriously weaken a synovial sarcoma patient.

Doesn’t harm normal cells

For years, the biggest hurdle to stopping the cancer in its tracks was our lack of knowledge about the genetic abnormality found in 100pc of patients who develop it. This mutation creates a harmful protein (SS18-SSX), with scientists believing that impeding the protein would lead to an ideal therapy. However, it is only now that one has been developed.

Brien explained that BRD9 ‘tricks’ the cells into eliminating the SS18-SSX on which they rely, which in turn leads to their death.

“We also found that our new drug primarily impacts cellular processes important in synovial sarcoma, but not normal cells,” he said. “This is very important, because it should result in less unwanted side effects in patients. We now hope these promising findings will lead to clinical trials of this new drug in patients in the near future.”

This news comes not long after a team from Virginia Tech in the US revealed it developed a new drug that could halt the spread of a fast-moving brain cancer called glioblastoma.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic