Re-writing the Manual of Life

A little while ago we talked about a fantastic triumph by a team at Great Ormond Street Hospital (Gosh! Wonderful GOSH) in using a form of immunotherapy to save a little girl. What they did was to take the T cells from a sample of her blood and use gene editing – molecular cutting and pasting – to remove some genes and add others before growing more of the cells and then putting them back into the patient.

Gene editing – genetic engineering that removes or inserts sections of DNA – uses engineered nucleases, enzymes that snip DNA but do so in a controlled way by homing in on a specific site (i.e. a defined sequence of As, Cs, Gs and Ts).

We mentioned that there are four main ways of doing this kind of engineering – the GOSH group used ‘transcription activator-like effectors’ (TALEs). However, the method that has made the biggest headlines is called CRISPR/Cas, and it has been very much in the news because a legal battle is underway to determine who did what in its development and who, therefore, will be first in line for a Nobel Prize.

Fortunately we can ignore such base pursuits and look instead at where this technology might be taking us.

What is CRISPR/Cas?

CRISPRs (pronounced crispers) are bits of DNA that contain short repetitions of base sequence, each next to a ‘spacer’ sequence. The spacers have accumulated in bacteria as a defence mechanism – they’re part of the bacterial immune system – and they’re identical to sequences found in viruses that infect microbes. In other words, the cunning bugs pick up bits of dangerous viruses to make a rogues gallery so they can recognize and attack those viruses next time they pop in.

Close to CRISPR sit genes encoding Cas proteins (enzymes that cut DNA, so they’re ‘nucleases’). When the CRISPR-spacer DNA is read by the machinery of the cell to make RNA, the spacer regions stick to Cas proteins and the whole complex, including the viral sequences, can roam the cell seeking a virus with genetic material that matches the CRISPR RNA. The CRISPR RNA sticks to the virus and Cas chops its DNA – end of virus. So Cas, by binding to CRISPR RNA, becomes an RNA-guided DNA cutter.


CRISPR-CAS: Bug defence against invaders. Viruses can attack bacteria just as they can human cells. Over time bugs have evolved a cunning defence strategy: they insert short bits of viral DNA into their own genome (above). These contain repeated sequences of bases and each is followed by short segments of ‘spacer DNA’ (above). This happens next to DNA that encodes Cas proteins so that both are ‘read’ to make RNA (transcription). Cas proteins bind to spacer RNA, leaving the adjacent viral RNA free to attach to any complementary viral DNA it encounters. The Cas enzyme is thus guided to DNA that it can cleave. CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats.

Why is CRISPR/Cas in the headlines?

We saw in Gosh! Wonderful GOSH how the Great Ormond Street Hospital team tinkered with DNA and in Self Help – Part 2 we summarized another way of doing this using viruses (notably a disabled form of the human immunodeficiency virus) to carry novel genes into cells.

A further arm of immunotherapy attempts to reverse an effect called checkpoint blockade whereby the immune system response to tumours is damped down – e.g. by using antibodies that target a protein called PD-1 (Self Help – Part 1).

Now comes news of a Chinese trial which will be the first time cells modified using CRISPR–Cas9 gene editing have been injected into people. The chap in charge is Lu You from Sichuan University’s West China Hospital in Chengdu and the plan is to take T cells from the blood patients with metastatic non-small cell lung cancer for whom chemotherapy, radiation therapy and other treatments have failed.

The target will be the PD-1 gene, the idea being that, if you want to stop PD-1 doing its stuff, far better than mucking about with antibodies is to just knock out its gene: no gene no protein! What could possibly go wrong?

Well, wonderful though CRISPR is, it doesn’t always hit the right target but in this trial the cells can be tested to make sure it’s the PD-1 gene that’s been zonked – so that shouldn’t be a problem. However, it’s a blockbuster in that all the multiplied T cells put back into the patient will be active – i.e. will have lost the PD-1 brake. Whilst that may be good for zonking tumours, goodness knows what it might do elsewhere.

The initial trial is on a small scale – just 10 people. If there are problems one possibility is to try to take the T cells from the site of the tumour, which might select those specifically targeting the tumour – not straightforward as lung cancers are difficult to get at.

Anyone for a DNA upgrade?

It’s hard to say where all this is leading. However, as Chinese scientists have already made the first CRISPR-edited human embryos and the first CRISPR-edited monkeys, the only safe bet is that China will be to the fore.



Gosh! Wonderful GOSH

Anyone who reads these pages will long ago, I trust, have been persuaded that the molecular biology of cells is fascinating, beautiful and utterly absorbing – and all that is still true even when something goes wrong and cancers make their unwelcome appearance. Which makes cancer a brilliant topic to talk and write about – you know your audience will be captivated (well, unless you’re utterly hopeless). There’s only one snag, namely that – perhaps because of the unwelcome nature of cancers – it’s tough to make jokes. One of the best reviews I had for Betrayed by Nature was terrifically nice about it but at the end, presumably feeling that he had to balance things up, the reviewer commented that it: “ perhaps a little too light-hearted at times…” Thank you so much anonymous critic! Crikey! If I’d been trying to do slap-stick I’d have bunged in a few of those lewd chemicals – a touch of erectone, a bit of PORN, etc. (btw, the former is used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat arthritis and the latter is poly-ornithinine, so calm down).

I guess my serious referee may have spotted that I included a poem – well, two actually, one written by the great JBS Haldane in 1964 when he discovered he had bowel cancer which begins:

I wish I had the voice of Homer

To sing of rectal carcinoma,

Which kills a lot more chaps, in fact,
Than were bumped off when Troy was sacked.

Those couplets may reflect much of JBS with whom I can’t compete but, nevertheless, in Betrayed by Nature I took a deep breath and had a go at an update that began:

Long gone are the days of Homer
But not so those of carcinoma,
Of sarcoma and leukemia

And other cancers familia.
But nowadays we meet pre-school
That great and wondrous Molecule.
We know now from the knee of Mater
That DNA’s the great creator.

and went on:

But DNA makes cancer too

Time enough—it’ll happen to you.
“No worries sport” as some would say,
These days it’s “omics” all the way.

So heed the words of JBS

Who years ago, though in distress,
Gave this advice on what to do

When something odd happens to you:
“Take blood and bumps to your physician
Whose only aim is your remission.”

I’d rather forgotten my poem until in just the last week there hit the press a story illustrating that although cancer mayn’t be particularly fertile ground for funnies it does gloriously uplifting like nothing else. It was an account of how science and medicine had come together at Great Ormond Street Hospital to save a life and it was even more thrilling because the life was that of a little girl just two years old. The saga brought my poem to mind and it seemed, though I say it myself, rather spot on.

The little girl, Layla, was three months old when she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) caused by a piece of her DNA misbehaving by upping sticks and moving to a new home on another chromosome – one way in which genetic damage can lead to cancer. By her first birthday chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant had failed and the only remaining option appeared to be palliative care. At this point the GOSH team obtained special dispensation to try a novel immunotherapy using what are being called “designer immune cells“. Over a few months Layla recovered and is now free of cancer. However, there are no reports of Waseem Qasim and his colleagues at GOSH and at University College London dancing and singing the Trafalgar Square fountains – they’re such a reserved lot these scientists and doctors.

How did they do it?

In principle they used the gene therapy approach that, helpfully, we described recently (Self Help Part 2). T cells isolated from a blood sample have novel genes inserted into their DNA and are grown in the lab before infusing into the patient. The idea is to improve the efficiency with which the T cells target a particular protein (CD19) present on the surface of the leukemia cells by giving them artificial T cell receptors (also known as chimeric T cell receptors or chimeric antigen receptors (CARs) – because they’re made by fusing several bits together to make something that sticks to the target ‘antigen’ – CD19). The engineered receptors thereby boost the immune response against the leukemia. The new genetic material is inserted into a virus that carries it into the cells. So established is this method that you can buy such modified cells from the French biotech company Cellectis.

105 picAdoptive cell transfer immunotherapy. T cells are isolated from a blood sample and novel genes inserted into their DNA. The GOSH treatment also uses gene editing by TALENs to delete two genes. The engineered T cells are expanded, selected and then infused into the patient.

Is that all?

Not quite. To give themselves a better chance the team added a couple of extra tricks. First they included in the virus a second gene, RQR8, that encodes two proteins – this helps with identifying and selecting the modified cells. The second ploy is, perhaps, the most exciting of all: they used gene editing – a rapidly developing field that permits DNA in cells to be modified directly: it really amounts to molecular cutting and pasting. Also called ‘genome editing’ or ‘genome editing with engineered nucleases’ (GEEN), this form of genetic engineering removes or inserts sections of DNA, thereby modifying the genome.

The ‘cutting’ is done by proteins (enzymes called nucleases) that snip both strands of DNA – creating double-strand breaks. So nucleases are ‘molecular scissors.’ Once a double-strand break has been made the built-in systems of cells swing into action to repair the damage (i.e. stick the DNA back together as best it can without worrying about any snipped bits – these natural processes are homologous recombination and non-homologous end-joining, though we don’t need to bother about them here).

To be of any use the nucleases need to be targeted – made to home in on a specific site (DNA sequence) – and for this the GOSH group used ‘transcription activator-like effectors’ (TALEs). The origins of these proteins could hardly be further away from cancer – they come from a family of bacteria that attacks hundreds of different types of plants from cotton to fruit and nut trees, giving rise to things like citrus canker and black rot. About six years ago Jens Boch of the Martin-Luther-University in Halle and Adam Bogdanove at Iowa State University with their colleagues showed that these bugs did their dirty deeds by binding to regulatory regions of DNA thereby changing the expression of genes, hence affecting cell behavior. It turned out that their specificity came from a remarkably simple code formed by the amino acids of TALE proteins. From that it’s a relatively simple step to make artificial TALE proteins to target precise stretches of DNA and to couple them to a nuclease to do the cutting. The whole thing makes a TALEN (transcription activator-like effector nuclease). TALE proteins work in pairs (i.e. they bind as dimers on a target DNA site) so an artificial TALEN is like using both your hands to grip a piece of wood either side of the point where, using your third hand, you make the cut. The DNA that encodes the whole thing is inserted into plasmids that are transfected into the target cells; the expressed gene products then enter the nucleus to work on the host cell’s genome. There are currently three other approaches to nuclease engineering (zinc finger nucleases, the CRISPR/Cas system and meganucleases) but we can leave them for another time.

The TALENs made by the GOSH group knocked out the T cell receptor (to eliminate the risk of an immune reaction against the engineered T cells (called graft-versus-host disease) and CD52 (encodes a protein on the surface of mature lymphocytes that is the target of the monoclonal antibody alemtuzumab – so this drug can be used to prevent rejection by the host without affecting the engineered T cells).

What next?

This wonderful result is not a permanent cure for Layla but it appears to be working to stave off the disease whilst she awaits a matched T cell donor. It’s worth noting that a rather similar approach has been used with some success in treating HIV patients but it should be born in mind that, brilliant though these advances are, they are not without risks – for example, it’s possible that the vector (virus) that delivers DNA might have long-term effects – only time will tell.

Almost the most important thing in this story is what the GOSH group didn’t do. They used the TALENs gene editing method to knock out genes but it’s also a way of inserting new DNA. All you need to do is add double-stranded DNA fragments in the correct form at the same time and the cell’s repair system will incorporate them into the genome. That offers the possibility of being able to repair DNA damage that has caused loss of gene function – a major factor in almost all cancers. Although there is still no way of tackling the associated problem of how to target gene editing to tumour cells, it may be that Layla’s triumph is a really significant step for cancer therapy.


Smith, J. et al. (2015). UCART19, an allogeneic “off-the-shelf” adoptive T-cell immunotherapy against CD19+ B-cell leukemias. Journal of Clinical Oncology 33, 2015 (suppl; abstr 3069).