Study suggests CRISPR gene-editing technology may elevate cancer risk

Research published Monday in the journal Nature Medicine suggests that the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing system can increase the risk of cancer in certain cells. In the study, the investigators found that CRISPR-Cas9 activated p53, while cells lacking this protein were easier to edit. The researchers warned that gene editing could lead to the proliferation of cells lacking this checkpoint, consequently increasing cancer risk. 

Study author Jussi Taipale cautioned "we don't want to sound alarmist, and are not saying that CRISPR-Cas9 is bad or dangerous," adding "this is clearly going to be a major tool for use in medicine, so it's important to pay attention to potential safety concerns."  

In the study, the researchers discovered that suppression of p53 signalling permitted more efficient gene editing in healthy cells. However, the investigators added that while it might also reduce the risk of selecting p53-deficient cells, it could leave cells to be temporarily vulnerable to mutations causing cancer.

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"Although we don't yet understand the mechanisms behind the activation of p53, we believe that researchers need to be aware of the potential risks when developing new treatments," commented Taipale, continuing "this is why we decided to publish our findings as soon as we discovered that cells edited with CRISPR-Cas9 can go on to become cancerous."  

The research team also said that a second study published on Monday in the same journal by researchers at the Novartis Research Institute independently obtained similar results. 

Shares of gene-editing company CRISPR Therapeutics declined as much as 12.6 percent on the news, while Intellia Therapeutics' shares sank as much as 9.8 percent, with Editas Medicine dropping as much as 7.7 percent.

For related analysis, read ViewPoints: Another day, another CRISPR scare.

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