Tech UPTechnologyGenetic cutter could increase cancer risk

Genetic cutter could increase cancer risk

We have been talking for a few years about the wonders of the revolutionary technique called CRISPR, which manages to cut fragments of defective DNA and replace it with good ones. It is believed that, thanks to this genomic editing technique that the prestigious journal Science described as the scientific milestone of the year 2015 , we are closer to curing diseases that are frequent and today have no cure – such as AIDS and many cancers.

However, according to two studies just made public, editing the genomes of cells with the CRISPR-Cas9 technique could increase the risk that the altered cells – which are intended to treat the disease in question – eventually cause cancer. A side effect that is presented as a setback for this tool with enormous biomedical potential and that calls for more studies to guarantee the safety of the technique.

Behind these two investigations are, on the one hand, the Karolinska Institute of Sweden and, on the other, Novartis. In two studies, which have seen the light in the journal Nature Medicine , the scientists point out that they detected that cells whose genomes are successfully edited with the genetic cutter could sow tumors in the patient , in such a way that those cells would become bombs of watches that may be activated after a while.

The CRISPR system – its name derives from the acronym for “grouped and regularly interspersed short palindromic repeats” – is based on a set of DNA sequences that bacteria use to defend themselves against viruses. It consists of locating the undesirable genes and proteins called Cas9 become the scissors in charge of cutting the defective parts.

Researchers from Karolinska and Novartis have tested CRISPR on different types of human cells (retinal – in the case of the former – and pluripotent stem cells – in the case of the latter -), but found essentially the same phenomenon.

The face and the cross of the p53 gene


As they highlight, the key to everything would be in the p53 gene, which is a kind of ‘biochemical first aid kit’ that is activated to repair DNA breaks , so that CRISPR does not work. According to Novartis, p53 reduces the effectiveness of this technique in pluripotent stem cells seventeen times, since the gene repairs what is being cut by this technique. Also Emma Haapaniemi, lead author of the study from the Karolinska Institute, explains that cutting the genome with CRISPR-Cas9 induces the activation of p53, which “makes editing much more difficult.”


In fact, the cells that survive the edits do so precisely because they have dysfunctional p53 – they do not have this mechanism for cell repair and elimination. And it is this dysfunction of p53 that could increase the risk of cancer , since these cells would not have the defense mechanism that this gene provides when it is functional. Not surprisingly, p53 mutations are behind almost 50% of ovarian cancers; 43% of colorectals; 38% of those of the lung; of almost a third of those of pancreas, stomach and liver; and a quarter of breast cancers, among others.


The gene editing companies have been quick to react by recognizing that the most important thing now is to pay attention to these studies and work hard to make sure the gene edited cells do not turn cancerous . It is not the first time that warnings have been raised about the possible side effects derived from the use of this gene editing tool, but the previous ones ended up being discarded.

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