News & Events

Genome editing up close in the lab

Last Reviewed 22/05/2017

By Mariana Campos

Earlier this month a group of patients, parents and carers came with us to The Institute of Cancer Research, London to see genome editing happening in the lab. This was as part of our Talking about genome editing project which aims to develop resources that reflect patients’ views on the best ways to communicate about genome editing.

Dr Chris Lord, a team leader at the ICR, told us about his team’s research: to find novel treatment approaches to cancer. Chris explained how genome editing has revolutionised his work.

Chris’ lab is using a screening method that allows them to make changes to each of the 25,000 genes in the human genome. Using this method, they can create thousands of cell lines - each one of them with only one gene affected. They then look at how the cells behave in the presence of certain drugs: do they keep on growing or do they die. This allows the team to examine how medicines interact with various genes in tumours.

Previously, Chris’s team would have to design a bespoke approach to edit each gene, one at a time. This was a time consuming and costly process, which would have allowed them to examine only a handful of genes. Using the most popular modern genome editing tool, CRISPR-Cas9, all 25,000 genes can be screened in parallel, in just two weeks - we were amazed!

Genome editing is a technique used to make precise and efficient changes to the DNA of a cell or an organism. It could be used to add, remove, or alter DNA in the genome of any organism. Genome editing techniques are widely used in research to help us understand how genes and cells work.

Genome editing is not new - scientists have been working with different techniques to modify genes for 30 years. However, the traditional tools are very time consuming, meaning that to create and study a glitch (mutation) in a gene takes a long time, and a lot of money!

With the current techniques, and more specifically the CRISPR-Cas9 technique, instead of having to design new tools, researchers can use readily available tools to study the function of genes.

Our participants thought the visit to The Institute of Cancer Research was extremely valuable:

‘I learnt a lot and it helps me keep understand some of the literature I have been reading.’ 

After hearing from Chris, Dr Stephen Pettitt a postdoctoral training fellow guided us through the lab and showed us how they keep their cell lines extremely cold (-196C) using liquid nitrogen tanks. He also showed us how they keep the cells happy and growing in incubators. It was fascinating to see how the genome editing experiments are done: scientists can order both the guide RNA and the molecular scissors (the tools needed to do genome editing experiments) from companies. They then need to make sure those tools can get inside the cell and check if the changes to the DNA lead to any changes in cell behaviour.

‘Thanks for the opportunity. It's made all the theory of genome editing come to reality and I enjoyed the lab visit as a first timer.’

Genetic Alliance UK is working with patients affected by rare and genetic conditions to develop resources on how to talk about genome editing. We want to make sure we communicate in a way that patients identify with and that we use vocabulary and comparisons that mean something to our audiences. You can find out more about the project and how to take part here.

Read more about ICR’s work on genome editing and cancer here.

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