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Christiana Care scientists' new approach to gene editing is a diagnostic tool for cancer

Christiana Care's Gene Editing Institute
Eric Kmiec, PhD in the lab.

Christiana Care scientists have found a way to use molecular scissors called CRISPR to edit genes outside of a cell, which could allow them to recreate genetic mutations in a tumor sample and figure out more targeted treatments for patients.  


When a person is diagnosed with cancer and gets a tumor extracted, they’ll usually get the DNA sequence from that tumor to identify genetic mutations in a cancer gene. That information is sent to a doctor to help them decide the best treatment.


Dr. Eric Kmiec, the director of Christiana Care Health System's Gene Editing Institute, says that can take a long time and is prone to mistakes, which can lead to mistreatment.

But if scientists recreate the genetic mutations on synthetic pieces of DNA on a chip outside of a cell, they can capture all of the mutations in a tumor sample and give physicians more accurate information on treatment.


“It allows the physician to understand the genetic profile that’s causing the underlying problem as opposed to something that can treat three, four, five patients a year right now because it’s in its early stages,” Kmiec said.


Kmiec said most of the research being done with CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) introduces CRISPR directly to the cell.


“It’s like a black box,” Kmiec said. “You send it in, it’s very efficient at what it does. Then you produce the cell and study the cell.”


But it’s not the most precise and accurate way to do things, especially because scientists can’t see the entire process. Editing the DNA on a chip outside of a cell allows scientists to “pull the parts away from the main reaction individually and catch the importance of each part,” Kmiec said.


It’s a different approach to gene editing than Christiana Care scientists typically take. Kmiec has been developing gene editing as an augmentative therapy for lung cancer, with a focus on decreasing a patient’s resistance to chemotherapy.


“The primary advice for any cancer is to catch it early,” Kmiec said. “What helps you catch it early is a cancer diagnostic.”

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