Gene-editing treatment Crispr gets caught up in cancer scare, sending stocks plummeting

Shares of gene-therapy companies plummeted after a report that editing a cell’s genome with CRISPR/Cas9 technology works best in cells more susceptible to cancer.


June 13, 2018

According to two new studies published in Nature Medicine, the heavily hyped, early-stage, gene-editing technique known as Crispr has run into a paradox: The treatment seems to work best when a cell’s cancer defenses are down.

Not ideal for a medical procedure. The news called the viability of the entire treatment into question — and sent shares of companies tied to the procedure into a nosedive.

Keepin’ it Crispr-y

Since Crispr came onto the scene 5 years ago, scientists have lauded it as tech that could one day revolutionize fields from medicine to agriculture.

Advocates have speculated that Crispr could be used to cure genetic diseases or even bring extinct species back to life, and painted Crispr’s pioneers as future Nobel Prize shoo-ins.

Here’s how it works: To edit genes with Crispr, scientists craft molecules that can enter the nucleus of a cell, home-in on a particular stretch of DNA and snip away at specific locations.

Unless p53 is on duty… 

Who? 

Two separate teams of researchers found that the gene p53 was in large-part responsible for preventing Crispr from working. So they tried turning p53 off — and voila! Crispr worked like a dream.

Problem is, p53 isn’t normally a bad guy. Normally, it defends cells against DNA mutations that can cause cancer.

In other words, the research showed that Crispr was more likely to work on cells that were less effective at fighting cancer.

That’s where investors started to freak

Investors read this news as: “Crispr causes cancer,” and things spiraled from there. 

According to Market Watch, CRISPR Therapeutics fell 13% after the announcement, along with two companies developing medical treatments based on CRISPR, Intellia Therapeutics, and Editas Medicine.

The 3 firms all released statements denying the notion that this research will have an impact on their programs, with Intellia assuring they’ve “observed no signs of any toxic cells transforming into cancer.” 

The scientists who published the research also maintain that “the reactions have been exaggerated,” and Crispr is still a promising technology, albeit further away from hitting the market than expected.

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