Researchers have manipulated the body’s natural defences in order to nip cervical cancer in the bud.
Scientists from Duke University in the US were able to destroy genes which trigger the spread of the disease. Because it’s caused by a virus, human papillomavirus (HPV), which also causes half of all head and neck cancers, the scientists came up with the idea to use a mechanism that the body’s bacteria uses to fight off viral infections.
Around 10 years ago, gene researchers realised that when the body is infected with a virus, the affected bacteria copies a section of that viral DNA and stores it, so that it can identify the interloper in future. They labelled this process ‘clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats’, or Crispr. (Which, yes, does sound like the next swipe-based dating app.)
If the body is infected by the same type of virus again, it activates Cas9, a bacterial protein which tries to hunt down and kill it off like some kind of nano-assassin. By replicating this process in the lab, the team from Duke not only stopped cervical cancer cells from multiplying but caused them to self-destruct.
It will be a while before they can implement this knowledge, but they hope to move forward towards human trials. They also say that the technique could be used in future to treat any virus that’s stored in the DNA, including herpes and hepatitis B.