Scientists led by a University College Dublin (UCD) researcher believe the CRISPR gene-editing tool could be used to find new therapies for lung cancer.

CRISPR is a powerful tool that offers a cheap and easy method to find and alter a specific piece of DNA within a cell. The tool has been hailed over the years as a potential way to tackle diseases, though concerns about side effects have been noted.

The international team of scientists looked at RNA, which is part of the genetic information in all living cells. While DNA contains the blueprint instructions, RNA is capable of transmitting that information and performing important biological roles in a cell.

The team was particularly interested in “long noncoding RNAs”, or lncRNAs, a large class of RNAs discovered in the past decade that have emerged as critical disease genes.

In a study, published in the scientific journal Cell Genomics, the scientists set out to find potential new RNA-based therapies for non-small cell lung cancer, which is the most common type of lung cancer.
RNA therapeutics (RNATX) has recently emerged as a promising strategy for developing therapies against common diseases.

“The biggest hurdle is identifying the optimal gene targets for RNATX in a given disease,” said UCD’s Prof Rory Johnson, who led the study.

“This project achieves that by combining CRISPR genome-editing with lncRNAs to select the most promising lncRNA targets for therapy.”

Using CRISPR, the team initially identified 80 possible lncRNA targets that are active in non-small cell lung cancer. Further screening homed in on two potential targets that have been named as ‘cancer hallmarks’.

These two targets will now be further investigated.

Speaking about the study, UCD Conway Institute director Prof Helen Roche said the findings offer a “widely applicable strategy” to discover targets for new RNA therapies in “virtually any cancer”.

“I want to congratulate Rory and his colleagues worldwide on this work,” Roche added.

The team plans to further develop the candidate gene targets for preclinical testing, with a goal to move into clinical trials if successful. They will also look to further improve screening techniques to discover better targets cheaply and in other cancer types.

The study was initiated at the University of Bern and completed in UCD. Science Foundation Ireland funded the project through a Future Research Leaders grant that was awarded to Johnson.

The collaborative study included scientists from research institutions in Spain, Switzerland, Italy, the US, Hong Kong and China.

Leigh Mc Gowran
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