Researchers at the MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine have developed a new platform based on the revolutionary CRISPR/Cas9 technology, to alter the way human cells respond to external signals, and provide new opportunities for stopping cancer cells from developing.
Cells are constantly monitoring the environment around them and are programmed to respond to molecular cues in their surroundings in distinct ways – some cues may prompt cells to grow, some lead to cell movement and others initiate cell death. For a cell to remain healthy, these responses must be finely balanced. It took evolution over two billion years to tune these responses and orchestrate their interplay in each and every human cell. But what if we could alter the way our cells respond to certain aspects of their environment? Or make them react to signals that wouldn’t normally provoke a reaction? New research published by scientists at the University of Oxford takes cellular engineering to the next level in order to achieve just that.
In a paper published in Cell Reports, graduate student Toni Baeumler and Associate Professor Tudor Fulga, from the MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, Radcliffe Department of Medicine, have used a derivative of the CRISPR/Cas9 technology to rewire the way cells respond to extracellular signals. CRISPR/Cas9 frequently makes the headlines as it allows medical researchers to accurately manipulate the human genome – opening up new possibilities for treating diseases. These studies often focus on correcting faulty genes in crops, livestock, mammalian embryos or cells in a dish. However, not all diseases are caused by a defined error in the DNA. In more complex disorders like diabetes and cancer, it may be necessary to completely rewire the way in which cells work.
Cells are exposed to thousands of different signals – some they will have encountered before, while others that are entirely new. Receptors that sense these signals form one part of a complex modular architecture created by the assembly of building blocks like in a Lego design. It is the precise combination of these ‘Lego bricks’ and the way in which they are built that dictates how a cell responds to a given signal.