To investigate the potential usefulness of CRISPR for creating mouse models of cancer, the researchers first used it to knock out p53 and pten, which protect cells from becoming cancerous by regulating cell growth. Previous studies have shown that genetically engineered mice with mutations in both of those genes will develop cancer within a few months.
Studies of such genetically engineered mice have yielded many important discoveries, but the process, which requires introducing mutations into embryonic stem cells, can take more than a year and costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. "It's a very long process, and the more genes you're working with, the longer and more complicated it becomes," Jacks says.
Using Cas enzymes targeted to cut snippets of p53 and pten, the researchers were able to disrupt those two genes in about 3 percent of liver cells, enough to produce liver tumors within three months.
Many models possible
The researchers also used CRISPR to create a mouse model with an oncogene called beta catenin, which makes cells more likely to become cancerous if additional mutations occur later on. To create this model, the researchers had to cut out the normal version of the gene and replace it with an overactive form, which was successful in about 0.5 percent of hepatocytes (the cells that make up most of the liver).
The ability to not only delete genes, but also to replace them with altered versions "really opens up all sorts of new possibilities when you think about the kinds of genes that you would want to mutate in the future," Jacks says. "Both loss of function and gain of function are possible."
Using CRISPR to generate tumors should allow scientists to more rapidly study how different genetic mutations interact to produce cancers, as well as the effects of potential drugs on tumors with a specific genetic pro
|Contact: Sarah McDonnell|
Massachusetts Institute of Technology