Zap! New Genetic Therapy Technique Electrocutes Cancer Cells into Submission

In a Washington Post article by Ben Guarino, new cancer treatments lasso the power of naturally occurring immune cells in the body. Researchers are looking into ways modify them to stampede specific cancerous targets through the use of CRISPR/Cas6.


CRISPR, a gene editing tool, can be used to transform the function of T cells, a type of white blood cell that would normally attack bacterial and fungal infections, into cells that attack tumors. 

These cells could potentially open the doors to a world where the body could competently ward off cancer all on its own.

The T cells are removed from the body, and through a highly sophisticated cut and paste, new genes are implanted into them. The cells are then returned to the body and under their newly adjusted impulses, find and attack harmful cells.

“We’re living in an amazing moment in cancer immunotherapies,” said Alexander Marson, a medical research professor at the University of California at San Francisco. 

The Food and Drug Administration began approving this type of gene therapy with caution in 2017, only allowing a few patients with particularly punishing forms of cancer to take the risk on an experimental method. It was a move that has thus far indicated positive results. Despite this, the therapy is progressing very slowly towards its goal of being widely practiced.

The Cost

The major factor standing in the way is the price tag. The mechanism that delivers the new genes into cells are expensive and only a few hospitals countrywide have it.

The popular practice used today is to take disabled viruses and inject the genes intravenously, just as you would receive a vaccine. The manufacturing systems that develop these viral vector alternatives are still expensive and exclusive. Some patients are left having to wait years for their new viruses.

A Hopeful Future

But there is hope. Marson and his team of researchers have developed a faster way to redesign the T cells. Their findings were published in the online medical journal Nature.

The main problem with the intravenous method is that it is relatively random and takes time. Instead of waiting for the viruses to take care of the job of delivering the genetic material, Marston’s people electrocuted the T cells. The T cells, shocked into relaxation, loosened up their membranes and were opened to the new genes quicker than ever before.

How shocking the cells worked remains a mystery, but the outcome was ultimately what the researchers were looking for. The modified genes floated by the T cells and were accepted into the nucleus with ease. The new genetic code started functioning almost immediately.

“It is a game-changer in the field and I’m sure that this technology has legs.”

said Vincenzo Cerundolo, director of the Human Immunology Unit at Oxford University  

The innovation should lead to both faster development time and more affordable therapy, which will act in time spans that are closer to weeks as opposed to months.

However, it’s important to note that these findings are still in a research stage. Theodore Roth, a doctoral student who works on the project performed hundreds of experiments in hopes to identify the best way to zap T cells with new genes. His results indicate varied responses depending on who the cells were from and what kind of genes were trying to be introduced.

There is still a lot of work to be done; many studies must be undergone before researchers understand it. However, the technique offers exciting new possibilities in the world of genetic therapy.

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