There is new hope for future innovation in the fast-moving field of cancer immunotherapy. Earlier this month, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford published a study in Science Magazine that produced some of the first evidence that CRISPR is a safe and feasible procedure for cancer patients. The DNA-editing technology was combined with another state-of-the-art technology, CAR-T cells, which are T-cells that have been genetically engineered to produce an artificial T-cell receptor for use in immunotherapy. The first of its kind in the United States, the peer-reviewed study revealed that the edited cells went to the right place in patients’ bodies and survived longer than expected. Although they didn’t cure the participants of cancer, they also didn’t cause great harm. The results of this CAR-T and CRISPR cancer study hold significant promise for the future of cancer research.
Conducted last year, the study involved three patients: two female, one male, all in their 60s. One of the patients had sarcoma, while the other two suffered from blood cancer multiple myeloma. These patients received infusions of CRISPR-altered versions of their own T-cells, which researchers had modified to recognize and kill cancer cells in a Pennsylvania lab.
Before the study, researchers had many questions: Would the CRISPR-altered cells settle into the patients’ bodies well? Would the cells locate the patients’ cancer? How long would the cells survive? Would they produce any adverse effects? Fortunately, the results were encouraging. When researchers took blood samples from the patients every few months, they found CRISPR-altered cells. The cells had successfully joined each patient’s immune system without causing a dangerous reaction and could still be found circulating in their blood nine months later. In addition, when researchers biopsied patients’ bone marrow, they found the edited T-cells at the sites of the cancer, which means the cells had also migrated to the correct locations in the body.
While the results of the study were exceedingly positive for researchers, the health outcomes were modest for patients. Their bodies tolerated the CRISPR-edited T-cells, producing no immune response and only mild adverse effects. Following the study, one patient died and the others’ cancer worsened. However, the clinical trial was not designed with the aim of curing cancer. It succeeded in its goal of demonstrating the safety and feasibility of using CRISPR-Cas9 editing to engineer T-cells in patients with refractory cancer.
The Future of CRISPR
Researchers believe that this CAR-T and CRISPR cancer study may open up a whole new frontier in cancer immunotherapy research. The field of gene editing is advancing quickly, and this data will make it easier for other researchers to conduct studies in which patients are given CRISPR-edited T-cells. However, a great deal of experimentation must transpire in the years ahead, with trials incorporating a greater number of patients and more engineered cells. Luckily, this field of research is brimming with fresh ideas.
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