Have we found a universal cancer killing immune cell and created new lifeforms?
In the past week or so, new discoveries have been made, which if they pass trials, can be game changers.
First, let’s begin with the fantastic new technology called CRISPR. This is a gene-editing tool that basically does a cut and paste job on DNA. In the 1990s, it was discovered that bacteria and archaea (which are another type of unicellular organism) have nucleic acid sequences that contained copies of virus genes. To scientists, it looked like the bacteria had stolen virus genes but it was not clear why. It was then discovered that the sequence protected cells against infections. If a virus attacked a bacterium to infect it, CRISPR associated (or Cas) enzymes would seek out its DNA and destroy it. What’s going on is that copies of virus genes incorporated by the bacteria are used as a reference library to detect and destroy new infections from similar viruses.
Scientists realized that this ability to seek out genes could be used as a perfect tool for gene editing. They use a protein called Cas9 in conjunction with CRISPR as a gene-editing tool. Cas9 is an enzyme which uses CRISPR as a guide to seek and cut out genetic code in a cell and the technology is known as CRISPR Cas9. This means that scientists can now cut out a target gene, replace it or completely remove it. This is now being used in a variety of applications, such as biological research, destroying drug resistance super bacteria, development of biotechnology products and treating genetic diseases.
There has been some controversy associated with this tool, when a doctor in China edited out AIDS related genes from embryos of twin girls resulting in discussions about moral and ethical implications. However, for the most part some very cool things are being done using CRISPR Cas9 and we are going to talk about one of them now.
There were some recent new developments in the field of cancer research that came about quite by happenstance. Researchers at Cardiff University in Wales were analyzing blood from a bank, looking for immune cells that can fight bacteria. Instead, they found a T-Cell that seems to be able to fight most types of cancers. It has entirely new types of receptors that act like a hook, grabbing most human cancers and ignoring healthy cells. Cancer fighting therapies, such as CAR-T and TCR-T, which use engineered immune cells to fight cancer already exist. In these therapies, immune cells are removed from a patient, altered by CRISPR Cas9 to attack molecules associated with cancer and then they are injected back into the patient. But they are not across the board and are only used for some kinds of leukemia. They have not been able to work on solid tumors.
The newly discovered T-cells however can lock on to a molecule on cancer cells called MR1, which does not vary in humans. Therefore, the possibility of targeting most cancers is very high. If successful, there are countless possibilities of treating cancer cheaply by creating off the shelf treatment. The new immune cell treatment has been tested successfully in mice. In the lab, immune cells (T-Cells), which included the new receptor were shown to kill blood, skin, bones, lung, colon, breast, prostate, ovarian, kidney and cervical cancer.
In this case also, T-Cells were modified using CRISPR Cas9 to express the new receptor. Obviously, more trials need to be done before any treatment can be on the market, however, this has huge potential.
Now we come to the stuff of science fiction: Xenobots! These are entirely new lifeforms created in the lab. Using stem-cells from frogs, scientists have created the world’s first living, self-healing robots. They are less than a millimeter wide — which makes them small enough to travel inside the human body. They can walk, swim, work in groups and survive without food for weeks.
How was this done? Most cells in living things are specialized and know their function. But there are also un-specialized stem-cells that have the ability to develop into different types of cells. Researchers took living stem-cells from the skin and heart muscle of frogs, let them incubate and then cut and reshaped them into different forms designed by a computer. They were equipped with their own food source (lipids and proteins) so they can live for about 7 days. However, do not have a brain, cannot reproduce and exhibit only functional behavior.
These new lifeforms can help us do a lot of things such as clean up radioactive waste, collect micro-plastics in oceans, but most importantly they can serve as medicine delivery mechanisms or even to clean up plaque from arteries because metal micro-bots (that are currently being used) can be harmful to the human body, and they can help us learn more about cell biology.
If you want to design your own virtual organisms, you can find the source code here.
Both of these exciting new discoveries can perhaps open a new chapter in medicine and health this decade.