Biotechnology is a branch of science that uses living organisms to produce useful products for the improvement of human health, such as antibiotics, vaccines, and cells with edited DNA. Many advancements in biotechnology have been especially promising in regards to cancer treatment. Some examples of biotech changing the way we treat cancer are T cell immunotherapy and CRISPR gene editing.
Often, the reason why cancers can be so dangerous is because tumors and cancerous cells go unnoticed by the immune system. This occurs because the cancer is made up of constantly dividing body cells and not a foreign pathogen. Therefore, the immune cells recognize the antigens on the cancer as self-cells instead of malignant cells.
However, T-Cell immunotherapy is a new type of cancer treatment that uses the immune system to attack cancers. Chimeric Antigen Receptor T Cell (CAR-T) Immunotherapy, a specific type of T-Cell immunotherapy, triggers the immune system to recognize and lyse (destroy)
tumors. The immune system is activated by taking the patient’s T-cells and then genetically modifying them so that they code for a Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR), which will be able to recognize a specific tumor’s antigen. If the immune system is able to recognize the antigen of the tumor, then it will be able to recognize that the tumor is malignant and will fight off the cancerous cells. Some advantages of CAR-T are that
there is a decreased risk of host rejection, only the tumor will be targeted so there will be less side effects compared to using chemotherapy, and triggering the immune system reduces the risk of relapse. A disadvantage of this type of treatment is that the production cost is very expensive. Researchers are currently trying to find a way to make this treatment less expensive and more available to the general public.
Promising trials have already been conducted in favor of this cancer fighting method. One trial that has taken place was an attempt to treat Leukemia (cancer affecting the blood and bone marrow) by targeting the CD19 antigen. In this trial, genetically engineered T-cells were used to target the CD19 antigen, an antigen found in the B-cells that become cancerous in leukemia. After the T-cells were able to recognize the antigens of the B-cells as non-self, they were able to “mass murder” these cancerous B-cells. A problem with this method was that healthy B-cells were also targeted and destroyed by the T-cells, but wiping out a human’s B-cells is not life-threatening. The results of this trial were remarkable, and this treatment may be used to help cancer patients in the future.
Another type of biotechnology that has been helpful in treating cancer is CRISPR/Cas9. CRISPR is a gene editing tool that utilizes the protein Cas9 to splice out and insert genes into DNA. CRISPR was originally derived from DNA sequences in bacteria. CRISPR is like a pair of molecular scissors, and it is more precise than almost any other gene editing tool. It has been especially useful in cancer treatments that require genetic engineering, like T-Cell immunotherapy. In T-cell immunotherapy, CRISPR is used to insert antigen-detecting receptors into specialized lymphocytes called T-cells. Although CRISPR is very fast in gene editing, it can sometimes cut DNA outside of the target gene, which is very harmful and can cause cancer. Trials have already been done using CRISPR, and the results are very promising both for cancer and for other diseases that have a genetic component.
These are just some examples of current biotechnology. Many promising trials are being conducted to improve the accuracy and efficiency of these tools, and new advancements in gene-editing technologies are happening every year. The cure to cancer may very well rest in the field of genetics and biotechnology.
Author: Nicole Liu
Editor: Simona Hausleitner
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