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Gene Editing Could Enhance Colon Cancer Research

Rachel Morrell

colon cancer research

When I was in high school, my favorite class was biology. I will always remember our chapter on DNA and the double helix model discovered by Watson and Crick. How was everything in nature created by four proteins? Adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine: when connected correctly, they create perfection. But if one tiny protein is out of order, it can result in disease.

Scientists are now studying the composition of those four tiny proteins within a gene to better understand the rate at which colon cancer develops and spreads. Gene editing is an important breakthrough in colon cancer. Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology are now creating colon tumors in mice that are like human tumors, and the tumors are metastasizing to the liver. Creating tumors in mice that behave the same way tumors in humans behave allows researchers to learn more about how colon cancer spreads and enables them to try new therapies.

Tyler Jacks, the director of the Koch Institute, has used genetic editing to create lung and liver tumors in mice. "[This new technology has] begun to revolutionize many aspects of cancer research, including building mouse models of the disease with greater speed and greater precision,” Jacks stated. “This study is a good example of both.”

Before the use of gene editing, biologists had two methods of studying cancer: growing human cancer cells in a lab dish or genetically engineering mice with mutations that predisposed them to cancer. There were many limitations to these methods. Cancer cells grown in a petri dish do not behave or reproduce like human tumor cells, and breeding mice with mutations can be a time-consuming process.

With gene editing, researchers create specific mutations in living animals, using a DNA-cutting enzyme to either delete genes or insert new genes. This method was originally designed for studying the bacterial immune system. Omer Yilmaz, an MIT assistant professor of biology, a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, and the lead senior author of the study, decided to adapt the technology to generating colon tumors in mice.

Yilmaz and his team were already working on a method for growing small tissues called organoids that mimic the structure of the colon. They used gene editing to create mutations in the organoids and transplanted the organoids to the colon where they attached to the colon lining and grew into tumors. One of the biggest advantages of this method is that scientists can introduce new mutations progressively, which allows them to study how each mutation affects the progression and spreading of the cancer cells.

This is definitely an exciting advancement in colon cancer research. Gene editing has reduced the amount of time that it takes to genetically engineer a tumor from two years to just a few months. Rapidly developing technology like this may pave the way for “personalized medicine,” where doctors can test several treatment options against a patient’s own cancer cells. Personalized, targeted therapy could make all the difference in young-onset colon cancers, which are often diagnosed at later stages and require aggressive treatment.

As for Yilmaz, he and his team are using gene editing techniques to study how different factors such as diet, metabolism and age affect tumor growth (Source: MIT News).

 

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