DNA breakthrough could replace chemotherapy: scientists

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When surgery or localized radiation isn’t an option, many cancer patients are left with chemotherapy as their only hope to attack cancer cells. Problem is, this type of drug treatment doesn’t just go after cancer — it attacks the whole body.

But thanks to “powerful” new research by scientists at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, breakthrough targeted drug therapies could soon be available.

Using the gene editing therapy known as Crispr, which can separate and remove unwanted genes in a DNA chain, they deconstructed nearly 20,000 individual genes from more than 300 lab-grown tumors of 30 different cancers, such as lung, colon, breast and pancreatic. Separating these genes allows scientists to locate “weaknesses” in the cancer.

Through this process, they were able to pinpoint 600 vulnerable genes that are crucial to a cancer cell’s survival. This finding could be used to formulate new drugs that would target only those vulnerable genes —rather than the whole body or cancerous mass.

Professor Karen Vousden, Cancer Research UK‘s chief scientist, tells the BBC, “What makes this research so powerful, is the scale.” Results of this study have been published in the journal Nature.

Cancer is essentially rapidly mutating cells which divide and spread quickly through the body, often forming clusters that make tumors. Cancer do this by altering and instructing our DNA to spread their malevolent cells farther and faster.

If a tumor is reachable, surgeons will often attempt to remove the mass; alternatively, they may use localized radiation to try and shrink it — and even then the likelihood of lingering cancer cells in the body is high.

Chemo is one of the most common forms of cancer treatment, using powerful chemicals to kill cancer cells. In doing so, it also damages cells throughout the body, leading to uncomfortable and painful side effects such as hair loss, fatigue, extreme nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, high risk of infection and more.

“This is so important because currently we treat cancer by treating the entire patient’s body,” says Dr. Fiona Behan, who co-authored the study. The finding will allow scientists, “to develop drugs that target the cancer and leave the healthy tissue undamaged.”

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