Fighting Cancer With Cancer: Scientists Use CRISPR To Tweak Tumor Cells And Make Them Attack ‘Their Own Kind’

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Cancer cells have a “self-homing” ability that allows them to travel through the bloodstream and seek out other cancerous cells of the same type, originating from the same tumor.

This mechanism has been manipulated in the past by modern medicine in order to sneak in camouflaged therapies and deliver them straight to the tumor site, as recently reported by the Inquisitr.

But a group of scientists from Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) in Boston, Massachusetts, had a different idea of how to take advantage of this “self-homing” of cancer cells.

In a study published on Wednesday in the journal Science Translational Medicine, the team describes an innovative method of using the CRISPR gene-editing tool to design cancer cells that home in on the unsuspecting tumor to unleash a surprise attack.

This ingenious technique uses cancer cells to kill the very tumor that produced them, by employing CRISPR-edited cancerous cells that are engineered to “turn against their own kind,” notes Science Daily.

Successfully tested in mice, the newly developed technique has showed promise in three types of tumors — primary, recurrent, and metastatic cancer.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” said study senior author Khalid Shah, who runs the BWH Department of Neurosurgery’s Center for Stem Cell Therapeutics and Imaging.

Here’s how this new cancer-killing method works.

The self-targeting cells are removed from the tumor and tweaked in the lab to secrete molecules that activate something known as a “death receptor” — a receptor that gives cells the message to self-destruct explains the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

Then, the cells are injected back into the subject — in this case, mice suffering from primary glioblastoma (the most frequent and malignant form of brain tumor), recurrent glioblastoma (brain cancer that returned after treatment), and breast cancer that metastasized to the brain, reports the Scientific American.

Once back inside the body, the CRISPR-edited cells return to the tumor from where they came, tracking similar cells that spread throughout the organ or in other parts of the body.

Arriving at their target destination, the cells trigger the “death receptors” in the rest of the cancerous cells, commanding them to destroy themselves.

“These cells were designed to secrete death receptor–targeting ligands to which they were resistant to kill the main tumor but not destroy themselves,” the authors explained in their paper.

To get rid of the cell “assassins” after they’ve re-infiltrated the body, the CRISPR-edited cells are fitted with a “kill switch,” the scientists pointed out.

This ensures that the cells are “eliminated on demand using a drug-triggered cellular suicide system to prevent them from repopulating the tumor site,” the team wrote in their paper.

“With our technique, we show it is possible to reverse-engineer a patient’s own cancer cells and use them to treat cancer. We think this has many implications and could be applicable across all cancer cell types,” said Shah, who is also affiliated with Harvard Medical School and Harvard Stem Cell Institute.