Scientists in Queensland, Australia, are being hailed for their major breakthrough in cervical cancer research using gene-editing technology.
“This is the first cure for any cancer using this technology,” said Nigel McMillan, lead researcher and director of immunology at the Menzies Health Institute at Griffith University, where a team used the CRISPR-Cas9 system to target cervical cancer tumors in mice.
As a result, 100 percent of their mice subjects were cured.
During the five-year project, scientists injected specialized nanoparticles into mice bearing tumors caused by the gene E7, which can be found in cancers caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV), according to McMillan, whose work has been published in the journal Molecular Therapy.
“We would then edit it by introducing some extra DNA that causes the gene to be misread and stop being made,” he said. “This is like adding a few extra letters into a word so the spellchecker doesn’t recognize it anymore.”
McMillan added, “Because the cancer must have this gene to produce, once edited, the cancer dies.”
He credited the “lightbulb moment” to a proactive student from Iraq, Dr. Luqman Jubair, who is researching genetic therapy in Australia.
“He went away and did something I did not really ask him to do,” said McMillan, whose team started with three treatments, but found that seven was the “magic number” of treatments under Jubair’s watch. “Without him doing that we would probably just have a pretty average outcome where tumors sort of slow down a bit and then keep growing.”
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that some 79 million Americans are living with HPV, which is the cause of 99.7 percent of all cervical cancer, according to McMillan. He noted there are “still many steps” before this method can be applied to humans, though the results are promising.
CRISPR technology is already being studied as a potential treatment for HIV, inherited diseases such as Huntington’s and progeria as well as other forms of cancer.
Cancer genes are “foreign” to the human genome, said McMillan, making them even harder to pinpoint. Of their discovery, he concluded, “This is the missing tool kit we have in our gene therapy toolbox.”