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Research casts doubts over CRISPR safety

Published on 12/06/18 at 11:17am

Research emerging from two studies, published in same issue of Nature, has raised significant questions over just how safe CRISPR technology, after it was suggested that it may increase risk of cancer developing.

The research emerged from Cambridge University and the Karolinska Institute, as well as one paper produced by Novartis, with both groups suggesting that CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing may bring into action one key gene, p53.

The p53 gene is responsible for repairing any damage to the DNA of a cell, which means it has an integral role in preventing the development of cancer cells.

In terms of CRISPR, the ability of this gene to prevent alterations to the DNA poses a major problem. When alterations are made in the DNA, the p53 gene is activated and works to either repair the damage or to destroy the cell.

This makes the gene problematic in preventing repairs by the CRISPR and, where the technology is effective, it could mean that the p53 gene is defective.

The researchers involved point out that this means CRISPR use that promotes cells with inactive p53 pathways could, inadvertently, encourage the development of cancer later in a patient’s life.

“We don't want to sound alarmist, and are not saying that CRISPR-Cas9 is bad or dangerous,” says Jussi Taipale, lead researcher on the Karolinska study. “This is clearly going to be a major tool for use in medicine, so it's important to pay attention to potential safety concerns. Like with any medical treatment, there are always side effects or potential harm and this should be balanced against the benefits of the treatment.”

As can be seen by Taipale’s comments, there is an effort being made to play down the damage that could potentially be done to CRISPR’s reputation as a therapeutic tool. The studies were still at a preliminary stage so there can be no firm conclusions drawn from the findings, as yet.

However, the publication of the research had dramatic impact on the share prices of those companies working in the CRISPR space, with the share prices of CRISPR Therapeutics, Editas Medicine and Intellia Therapeutics all significantly down on the news.

Ben Hargreaves

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