Gene-editing therapy for cancer has moved one step closer as scientists engineer patients’ blood cells to recognise and destroy tumours.
After being trialled on three older patients, it has been shown gene-edited white blood ‘T-cells’ are safe.
They can stay in the body for up to nine months, and remain capable of killing cancer cells.
More research is needed on larger groups of people to work out if super-charged white blood cells can help cure people with cancer.
But the breakthrough means fears that gene-editing would fall at the first hurdle – being unsafe to use in cancer patients because their immune system would reject it – appear to be unfounded.
We already have immunotherapy, which takes the T-cells that fight disease out of the body, and helps them recognise tumours.
But gene-editing can potentially improve on this, by removing genes which stop T-cells working at full power.
It is hoped this could one day be used to help people’s immune systems cure genetic diseases too, ending the misery of conditions like cystic fibrosis and sickle-cell anaemia.
Dr Carl June, who led the study from the University of Pennsylvania, said: “Our data from the first three patients enrolled in this clinical trial demonstrate two important things that, to our knowledge, no one has ever shown before.”
The gene-editing, using a tool called CRISPR-Cas 9, which uses ‘molecular scissors’ to cut away DNA from people’s cells, was trialled on two patients with the bone marrow cancer myeloma and one with a sarcoma – a cancer of the tissue which connects bone – in their lower leg.
When researchers took blood from the patients up to nine months later, the super-charged T-cells were still there. More importantly, they were found to destroy cancer cells in the lab, according to the study from the journal Science.