Cardiff Crock of Gold?


One of the oddities of science is that we are aware that we know little and understand less and yet manage to be surprised at frequent intervals when some bright spark discovers something new. So, surprised most of us indeed were by a paper from Andrew Sewell and colleagues at Cardiff University who have tracked down a hitherto unknown sub-population of white blood cells that may turn out to be extremely useful.

Before we get to the really exciting bit we need a follow-up word on CRISPR-Cas9, because that was what the Cardiff group used, and a clear picture of how the immune system works in cancer.

CRISPR-Cas in short

This method adapts a bacterial defence system for detecting and destroying invading viruses. It uses RNA guides to locate specific bits of DNA inside a cell, enabling molecular scissors to cut that section of DNA. This can disable a specific gene or allow a new gene to be inserted — described in Sharpening CRISPR and Re-writing the Manual of Life.

However, as well as being able to knock out genes or insert new ones, CRISPR has another feature. By using designer guide RNAs, CRISPR can scan the entire range of the genome. This DNA scanning feature can be scaled up to screen many genomic sites in parallel in one experiment. Synthesis of short fragments of nucleic acids (oligonucleotides) is carried out automatically using computer-controlled instruments (oligonucleotide synthesizers). The scale is astonishing: high-throughput DNA synthesis platforms can produce libraries of oligos (millions of them), each encoding a different guide RNA sequence and hence a different DNA target. Oligo libraries can be cloned into a lentiviral (a retrovirus) vector system for delivery to cells. This generates parallel, high-throughput, loss-of-function of specific genes from which their function can be inferred.

The immune system and cancer

The immune system can recognise cancer cells as abnormal and kill them. This happens because cancer cells (and cells infected by pathogens) break down proteins made within the cell and display those fragments on their surface. Thus cancer cells can ‘present’ their own antigens thereby stimulating an immune response that leads to their elimination by the immune system. Antigens on the cell surface bind to killer T cells (aka cytotoxic T cells) via the T-cell receptor (a complex of proteins on the T cell surface). This provokes the release of perforin that makes a pore, or hole, in the membrane of the infected cell. Cytotoxins then pass into the cell through this pore, destroying it. Almost all cell types can present antigens in some way and the loss of ‘antigen presentation’ is a major escape mechanism in cancer. It allows tumour cells to become ‘invisible’ and avoid immune attack by anti-tumour white blood cells.Scheme showing a cytotoxic T cell, (a type of lymphocyte aka a killer T cell, cytolytic T cell or CD8+ T cell), that kills cancer cells, interacting via its TCR with an antigenic peptide attached to an MHC molecule on the surface of a target cell. Granzymes are enzymes that cause apoptosis in targets cells.

What is the major histocompatibility complex?

Antigen-presenting cell (APCs) display antigen on their surface attached to major histocompatibility complexes (MHCs). MHCs are essential for the adaptive immune system to work, i.e. the sub-system of the immune response that eliminates pathogens. Human MHCs are also called the HLA (human leukocyte antigen) complex to distinguish it from other vertebrates. They’re encoded by a group of genes that are highly polymorphic — meaning that there are many different variant forms of the genes (alleles). The upshot of this is that no two individuals have exactly the same set of MHC molecules, with the exception of identical twins. This is the cause of transplant rejection wherein an immune response is switched on against HLA antigens expressed on APCs transferred along with the transplanted organ.

And now for the exciting news

The CRISPR screen used by Andrew Sewell and colleagues turned up a new type of T cell — one that differs from conventional T cells by presenting fragments of tumour proteins attached not to HLA proteins but to a different a receptor called MR1. The difference is critical because MR1 doesn’t vary between humans, unlike the highly variable HLAs. This appears to be why, in laboratory experiments, T cells with the MR1-seeking receptor can mediate killing of most types of human cancer cells without damaging healthy cells.

What they did was to take a sample of peripheral blood and select lymphocytes that proliferated in the presence of a cancer cell line (derived from a human lung cancer). They found that this cell clone kills a wide range of cancer cells in culture — so they used the CRISPR screening method to track down what the clone was targetting on cancer cells. Answer: MR1.

The novel T cell clone kills a broad range of tumour cells but does not kill cancer cell lines lacking MR1 or a range of healthy cells from various tissues. From Crowther et al., 2020.

The Cardiff group were further able to show that T-cells of melanoma patients modified to express this new TCR could destroy not only the patient’s own cancer cells, but also other patients’ cancer cells in the laboratory, regardless of HLA type (see Self Help – Part 2 and Gosh! Wonderful GOSH for how adoptive cell transfer works).

Transfer of the clone carrying the novel T cell receptor redirects patient T cells to recognize their own melanoma cells. Normal cells are unaffected. Black dots: + MR1; Grey dots: – MR1. From Crowther et al., 2020.

The data show (left) two T cell populations from two patients with metastatic melanoma. T cells transduced with the T cell receptor that binds MR1 recognized their own melanoma cells and killed them. Normal cells were unaffected regardless of MR1 expression.

These findings describe a TCR that exhibits pan-cancer cell recognition via the invariant MR1 molecule. Engineering T cells from patients that lacked detectable anti-cancer cell activity rendered them capable of killing the patients’ melanoma cells. However, these cells did not attack healthy cells so this method of genetic engineering, coupled with adoptive cell transfer, offers exciting opportunities for pan-cancer, T cell–mediated immunotherapy.

This discovery is most timely because, although CAR-T therapy is personalised to each patient, it targets only a few types of cancers and thus far has not worked for solid tumours.

CRISPR and related technologies are leading us into a new world in which Chinese scientists have already made the first CRISPR-edited human embryos and the first CRISPR-edited monkeys and, very recently in the first human trial of cells modified with CRISPR gene-editing technology, shown that the treatment is safe and lasting. This work, by You Lu at the West China Hospital in Chengdu, took immune cells from people with aggressive lung cancer and disabled the PD-1 gene. The PD-1 protein normally attenuates the immune system to prevent it attacking its own tissues but, as this reduces its anti-cancer capacity, knocking out PD-1 should overcome that restriction.

These advances are remarkable but we are still at the very beginning of gene therapy for cancer and the promise is almost limitless.


Crowther, M.D., Sewell, J.D. et al., (2020). Genome-wide CRISPR–Cas9 screening reveals ubiquitous T cell cancer targeting via the monomorphic MHC class I-related protein MR1. Nature Immunology  21,  178–185.

Shifting the Genetic Furniture


Readers of these pages will know very well that cells are packets of magic. Of course, we often describe them in the simplest terms: ‘Sacs of gooey stuff with lots of molecules floating around.’ And it’s true that we know a lot about the protein pathways that capture energy from the food we eat and about the machinery that duplicates genetic material, makes new proteins and sustains life. Even so, although we’ve worked out much molecular detail, we have scarcely a clue about how ‘stuff’ in cells is organised. How do the tens of thousands of different types of proteins find their places in the seemingly chaotic jumble of a cell so that they can do their job? If that remains a mystery there’s an even more perplexing one in the form of the nucleus. That’s a smaller sac (i.e. a compartment surrounded by a membrane) that is home to most of our genetic material — i.e. DNA.

Sizing up the problem

It’s easy to see why evolution came up with the idea of a separate enclosure for DNA which only has to do two things: reproduce itself and enable regions of its four base code to be transcribed into molecules that can cross the nuclear membrane to be translated into proteins in the body of the cell. But here’s the puzzle. The nucleus is very small and there’s an awful lot of DNA — over 3,000 million bases in each of the two strands of human DNA (and, of course, two complete sets of chromosomes go to make up the human genome) — so 2 metres of it in every cell. A rather pointless exercise, unless you go in for pub quizzes, is to work out the length of all your DNA if you put it together in a single string. 1013 cells (i.e. 1 followed by 13 zeros) in your body: 2 metres per cell. Answer: your DNA would stretch to the sun and back 67 times.

Mmm. More relevantly, the nucleus of a cell is typically about 6 micrometres (µm) in diameter — that’s six millionths of a metre (6/1,000,000 metre), into which our 2 metres must squeeze.

Time for some serious packing to be done but it’s not just a matter of stuffing it in any old how and sitting on the lid. As we’ve just noted, every time cells divide all the DNA has to be replicated and regions (i.e. genes) are continually being “read” to make proteins. So the machinery in the nucleus has to be able to get at specific regions of DNA and disentangle them sufficiently for code reading. Part of evolution’s solution to these problems has been to add proteins called histones to DNA (the term chromosome refers to DNA together with histone packaging proteins and other proteins). To understand how this leads to “more being less”, consider DNA as a length of cotton. If you just scrunch the cotton up into a ball you get a tangled mess. But if you use cotton reels (aka histones — two or three hundred million per cell), you can reduce the great length to smaller, more organized blocks — which is just as well because they’re all that stands between life and a tangled mess.

Thinking of histones as cotton reels helps a bit in thinking about how the nucleus achieves the seemingly impossible but the fact of the matter is that we have no real idea about how DNA is unravelling is controlled so that the two strands can be unzipped and replicated, yet alone the way in which starting points for reading genes are found by proteins.

Undeterred by our profound ignorance Haifeng Wang and colleagues at Stanford University have just done something really amazing. They came up with a way of moving regions of DNA from the jumble of the nuclear interior to the membrane and they showed that this can change the activity of genes. They used CRISPR (that we described in Re-writing the Manual of Life) to insert a short piece of DNA next to a chosen gene. The insert was tagged with a protein designed to attach to a hormone that also binds to a protein (called emerin) that sits in the nuclear membrane. So the idea was that when the hormone is added to cells it can hook on to the DNA tag and, by attaching to emerin, can drag the chosen gene to the membrane. The coupling agent is a plant hormone (abscisic acid) although it also occurs in other species, including humans. Wang & Co christened their method CRISPR-GO for CRISPR-Genome Organizer.

Tagging a DNA insert with a protein so that a coupling molecule can pull a region of DNA to a protein in the membrane of the nucleus. From Wang et al., 2018.

Repositioning regions of DNA in the nucleus. DNA is labeled blue which defines the shape of the nucleus. Red dots are specific genes before (left) and after (right) adding the coupling agent. From Pennisi 2018.

How did CRISPR-GO go?

Astonishingly well. Not only could it shift tagged DNA from the interior to the membrane of the nucleus but the rearrangements could change the way cells behaved. Depending on which regions were moved and where to, cells grew more slowly or more rapidly.

So this is a really remarkable technical feat — but it’s not just molecular pyrotechnics for fun. It looks as though this approach may offer at long last a way of dissecting how cells go about getting a controlled response out of the mind-boggling complexity that is their genetic material.


Wang, H. et al. (2018). CRISPR-Mediated Programmable 3D Genome Positioning and Nuclear Organization. Cell 175, 1405-1417.

Pennisi, E. (2018). Moving DNA to a different part of the nucleus can change how it works. Science Oct. 11th.

Caveat Emptor


It must be unprecedented for publication of a scientific research paper to make a big impact on a significant sector of the stock market. But, in these days of ‘spin-off’ companies and the promise of unimaginable riches from the application of molecular biology to every facet of medicine and biology, perhaps it was only a matter of time. Well, the time came with a bang this June when the journal Nature Medicine published two papers from different groups describing essentially the same findings. Result: three companies (CRISPR Therapeutics, Editas Medicine and Intellia) lost about 10% of their stock market value.

I should say that a former student of mine, Anthony Davies, who runs the Californian company Dark Horse Consulting Inc., mentioned these papers to me before I’d spotted them.

What on earth had they found that so scared the punters?

Well, they’d looked in some detail at CRISPR/Cas9, a method for specifically altering genes within organisms (that we described in Re-writing the Manual of Life).

Over the last five years it’s become the most widely used form of gene editing (see, e.g., Seeing a New World and Making Movies in DNA) and, as one of the hottest potatoes in science, the subject of fierce feuding over legal rights, who did what and who’s going to get a Nobel Prize. Yes, scientists do squabbling as well as anyone when the stakes are high.

Nifty though CRISPR/Cas9 is, it has not worked well in stem cells — these are the cells that can keep on making more of themselves and can turn themselves in other types of cell (i.e., differentiate — which is why they’re sometimes called pluripotent stem cells). And that’s a bit of a stumbling block because, if you want to correct a genetic disease by replacing a defective gene with one that’s OK, stem cells are a very attractive target.

Robert Ihry and colleagues at the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research got over this problem by modifying the Cas9 DNA construct so that it was incorporated into over 80% of stem cells and, moreover, they could switch it on by the addition of a drug. Turning on the enzyme Cas9 to make double-strand breaks in DNA in such a high proportion of cells revealed very clearly that this killed most of them.

When cells start dying the prime suspect is always P53, a so-called tumour suppressor gene, switched on in response to DNA damage. The p53 protein can activate a programme of cell suicide if the DNA cannot be adequately repaired, thereby preventing the propagation of mutations and the development of cancer. Sure enough, Ihry et al. showed that in stem cells a single cut is enough to turn on P53 — in other words, these cells are extremely sensitive to DNA damage.

Gene editing by Cas9 turns on P53 expression. Left: control cells with no activation of double strand DNA breaks; right: P53 expression (green fluorescence) several days after switching on expression of the Cas9 enzyme. Scale bar = 100 micrometers. From Ihry et al., 2018.

In a corresponding study Emma Haapaniemi and colleagues from the Karolinska Institute and the University of Cambridge, using a different type of cell (a mutated line that keeps on proliferating), showed that blocking P53 (hence preventing the damage response) improves the efficiency of genome editing. Good if you want precision genome editing by risky as it leaves the cell vulnerable to tumour-promoting mutations.

Time to buy?!

As ever, “Let the buyer beware” and this certainly isn’t a suggestion that you get on the line to your stockbroker. These results may have hit share prices but they really aren’t a surprise. What would you expect when you charge uninvited into a cell with a molecular bomb — albeit one as smart as CRISPR/Cas9. The cell responds to the DNA damage as it’s evolved to do — and we’ve known for a long time that P53 activation is exquisitely sensitive: one double-strand break in DNA is enough to turn it on. If the damage can’t be repaired P53’s job is to drive the cell to suicide — a perfect system to prevent mutations accumulating that might lead to cancer. The high sensitivity of stem cells may have evolved because they can develop into every type of cell — thus any fault could be very serious for the organism.

It’s nearly 40 years since P53 was discovered but for all the effort (over 45,000 research papers with P53 in the title) we’re still remarkably ignorant of how this “Guardian of the Genome” really works. By comparison gene editing, and CRISPR/Cas9 in particular, is in its infancy. It’s a wonderful technique and it may yet be possible to get round the problem of the DNA damage response. It may even turn out that DNA can be edited without making double strand breaks.

So maybe don’t rush to buy gene therapy shares — or to sell them. As the Harvard geneticist George Church put it “The stock market isn’t a reflection of the future.” Mind you, as a founder of Editas Medicine he’d certainly hope not.


Ihry, R.J. et al. (2018). p53 inhibits CRISPR–Cas9 engineering in human pluripotent stem cells. Nature Medicine, 1–8.

Haapaniemi, E. et al. (2018). CRISPR–Cas9 genome editing induces a p53-mediated DNA damage response. Nature Medicine (2018) 11 June 2018.

Seeing a New World

May I wish readers a Happy New Year – and indeed extend my felicitations to non-readers with the hope that they too will become followers! What a good idea! Not least because I suspect many are viewing the new year with a mixture of anxiety and despair. But I can promise there’s nothing like the sanity of science to restore you after a few minutes contemplating how we’re doing on the economic and political fronts.

Your starter for 2017

By happy chance a few weeks ago I tried to explain how it’s now possible to ‘re-write the manual of life’ – that is, to engineer our DNA, to fix broken genes if you like. This means that, in theory, it’s possible to correct errors in our genetic code that cause genetic diseases. As there are over 6,000 of these and they include Down syndrome, cystic fibrosis and Alzheimer’s disease, there’s no need to say it’s important. There are several ways of going about this but the one I described is called CRISPR and it’s had a lot of media coverage.

Right on cue

Well done then Keiichiro Suzuki, Juan Carlos Belmonte and friends from the Salk Institute in California together with colleagues from other centres in Spain, Saudi Arabia and China for their December paper describing a new CRISPR twist. They used a rat model of retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that is a major cause of inherited blindness, afflicting about one and a half million people worldwide (one in 4,000 in the UK).

The CRISPR-Cas9 system is great but it works best in dividing cells (e.g., in skin and gut that are renewing all the time) and it’s particularly useful for knocking out genes rather than inserting new DNA. The latest modification allows a new gene to be inserted into a specific site in the DNA of cells that are not dividing (e.g., those of the eye or brain).

The bits of CRISPR-Cas9, which insert DNA at very precise locations within the genome, are delivered to target cells as part of an inert virus. However, the package also includes DNA that encourages the cells to use a repair process that can be turned on even in non-dividing cells. So CRISPR-Cas9 cuts the cell’s DNA at an exact sequence and the cell then repairs the double-strand breaks (by a process called non-homologous end joining (NHEJ) that glues the broken ends directly together). Give the cell a new bit of DNA (e.g., your favorite gene) and that will get patched in – bear in mind that the cell doesn’t ‘know’ what it’s doing: it just tries to fix damaged DNA with whatever’s at hand.

And the target?

Retinitis pigmentosa occurs when a chunk of a gene called Mertk is lost. After quite a lot of experiments to show that their method worked, Suzuki, Belmonte & Co made a viral carrier that included a normal Mertk gene and injected it under the retina of rats with the disease. After about 5 weeks the rats were making Mertk RNA as a result of the gene being correctly ‘knocked-in’ to eye cells. The light-detecting region of the eye, greatly reduced by the disease, was significantly restored, with associated appearance of MERTK protein.

      Diseased    Normal     Treated                         Diseased         Normal         Treated


Left trio: Sections of the light-detecting layers of the eye in diseased (left), normal (centre) and diseased post-treatment rats (right). Right trio: corresponding fluorescence images showing MERTK expression (red: highlighted by white arrows); Cells labeled blue. (Suzuki et al. Nature 1–6 (2016) doi:10.1038/nature20565)

How did the rats see it?

Well, after treatment they were able to detect light and had significantly recovered their visual functions, albeit not to completely normal levels.

The usual caveats apply: the method isn’t hyper-efficient and a human treatment is still a long way off. Nevertheless, it’s a significant step.

The same group has also shown, using a way of re-programming the expression of just four genes, that it’s possible to arrest the signs of ageing. In other words, in mice this time, tinkering with these genes can increase lifespan – and yes, we have versions of these genes and in us they also control cell renewal.

So the New Year message is clear to see. If we can avoid turning the planet into a desert or blowing ourselves to smithereens the future is really rosy – and maybe even infinite!


Suzuki, K. et al. (2016). In vivo genome editing via CRISPR/Cas9 mediated homology-independent targeted integration. Nature 540, 144-149.

Ocampo, A. et al. (2016). In Vivo Amelioration of Age-Associated Hallmarks by Partial Reprogramming. Cell 167, 1719–1733.