Just a week after the scientific community gathered at CRISPRcon to hash out policy, ethical, and other challenges associated with the novel gene-editing technology, two studies came out in Nature Medicine with ominous results: it appears that cells edited by CRISPR could cause cancer.
Simply put, the concept behind CRISPR is to edit genomes, either by snipping out a disease-causing stretch of DNA or adding in a protective element. In both studies, CRISPR editing activated the p53 gene, which has long been known to spur the formation of cancer. P53 mutations are responsible for nearly half of ovarian cancers, 43 percent of colorectal cancers, 38 percent of lung cancers, nearly one-third of pancreatic, stomach, and liver cancers, and one-quarter of breast cancers, among others. That’s why the results reported this week are having a devastating effect on the stocks of CRISPR-based companies, not to mention the new cloud of doubt hanging over this gene-editing research.
But scientists and others say it’s too early to relegate CRISPR to the dustbin based on these two studies; there’s still a lot to learn about this technique, and it may well be possible to overcome this problem.
In recent years, scientists have made tremendous progress in developing new and more targeted ways to make those snips or to add new DNA sequence. But that work has been done in research labs. The goal has always been finding a way to usher this into medicine. It’s not hard to imagine that CRISPR would radically change how we think of health and disease if everyone’s genome could easily be edited.
For now, the Nature Medicine studies should primarily serve as a reminder that biology is never as simple as it seems. The results are available here and here, but both require a subscription.