Tag Archives: Broad Institute
A personalized “cancer vaccine” may help keep a deadly form of skin cancer from growing for years, a small new study in humans suggests. Unlike vaccines that prevent infections, such as measles and influenza, cancer vaccines are a form of immunotherapy that take down cancer cells that already exist. The vaccines train immune cells, called T cells, to better recognize cancer and target it for destruction, while sparing healthy cells in the body. For example, the new experimental vaccine works by training T cells to spot specific proteins on melanoma cells, a type of skin cancer. In the study, scientists found that the T cells continue to “remember” these proteins for at least four years after the vaccination — and they even learn to recognize more melanoma-related proteins over time.
“The only way that could have happened is if there was actually killing of the tumor cells. And presumably it was the T cells induced by the vaccine that did that killing,” said study author Dr. Catherine Wu, a physician-scientist with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School in Boston and the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That’s because, once killed, tumor cells fall apart and spill their contents; T cells then swoop in to examine these remains and log that information away for future attacks, Wu said.
While the results are promising, the new study only included eight patients, and more trials need to be conducted to pin down exactly how effective the vaccine is, she added. But as of now, the limited data hint that the vaccine triggers a persistent immune response and can help keep cancer under control, especially when combined with other immunotherapies, the authors noted. The new study, published Jan. 21 in the journal Nature Medicine, included patients with advanced melanoma who had recently undergone surgery for the cancer. The researchers took samples of the patients’ removed tumors and used them to craft personalized vaccines for each of the eight participants.
Picture the familiar double helix of human DNA — a long, twisted ladder with 3 billion rungs on it, each made of a pair of genetic bases (A, T, C, and G). A mistake in just one base along that ladder — an A where there should be a G — can be enough to cause a disease. In fact, researchers have linked over 31,000 different mistakes, known as “point mutations,” to human diseases. Now, an advanced form of gene therapy — called base editing — could make it possible to safely correct them.
Base editing is a type of gene editing technology, just like CRISPR. However, while CRISPR cuts through both strands of the DNA ladder to swap in different genes, a base editor makes precise changes to individual letters along the genome — a much less invasive kind of DNA surgery.
“It’s like your spell-checker,” neuroscientist Jeffrey Holt said. “If you type the wrong letter, spell checker fixes it for you.” Base editing was first developed by Broad Institute researcher David Liu in 2016, and it’s not perfect — the best base editors still make off-target edits and aren’t 100% efficient. However, the technique is more efficient than CRISPR and causes fewer errors, which has made it the focus of considerable research into correcting disease-causing point mutations.
“Base editing is like your spell-checker. If you type the wrong letter, it fixes it for you,” explained Jeffrey Holt. Holt was part of a team that used base editing to partially restore the hearing of mice with a point mutation that causes deafness in people. Earlier in 2020, University of Illinois researchers used base editing to slow the progression of ALS in mice. More recently, Liu was part of a group that used base editing to correct the point mutation that causes progeria, a premature-aging syndrome, in mice. By changing a T to a C in a single gene, they were able to more than double the lifespan of mice with the disease.
There’s no guarantee that a therapy that works in mice will translate to humans (although gene editing is conceptually much simpler than drugs that rely on complex chemistry). To find out whether base editing can live up to its promise as a disease-curing technology, we need human studies — and now, one is just on the horizon.
On January 12, Massachusetts-based biotech company Verve Therapeutics announced the promising results of a study testing a base editing treatment for heterozygous familial hypercholesterolemia (HeFH), a genetic heart disease. HeFH is fairly common, affecting about one in 500 people, and it causes consistently high levels of “bad” cholesterol (LDL-C) — that makes people with the disease susceptible to heart attacks or strokes at a relatively young age. In primates with HeFH, Verve used base editing to change an A to a G in a single gene. Within two weeks, the animals’ blood LDL-C levels had dropped by 59%. Six months later, they were still just as low.The treatment, dubbed “VERVE-101,” was well-tolerated, with no adverse effects reported.
“When we started, we had no idea this would work,” Verve CEO Sekar Kathiresan said in a press release, adding, “It works, and we expect this to be durable for the lifetime of the animals.” Now, Verve wants to find out if VERVE-101 works in humans.
Andrew Anzalone was restless. It was late autumn of 2017. The year was winding down, and so was his MD/PhD program at Columbia. Trying to figure out what was next in his life, he’d taken to long walks in New York’s leaf-strewn West Village. One night as he paced up Hudson Street, his stomach filled with La Colombe coffee and his mind with Crispr gene editing papers, an idea began to bubble through the caffeine brume inside his brain. Crispr, for all its DNA-snipping precision, has always been best at breaking things. But if you want to replace a faulty gene with a healthy one, things get more complicated. In addition to programming a piece of guide RNA to tell Crispr where to cut, you have to provide a copy of the new DNA and then hope the cell’s repair machinery installs it correctly. Which, spoiler alert, it often doesn’t. Anzalone wondered if instead there was a way to combine those two pieces, so that one molecule told Crispr both where to make its changes and what edits to make. Inspired, he cinched his coat tighter and hurried home to his apartment in Chelsea, sketching and Googling late into the night to see how it might be done. A few months later, his idea found a home in the lab of David Liu, the Broad Institute chemist who’d recently developed a host of more surgical Crispr systems, known as base editors. Anzalone joined Liu’s lab in 2018, and together they began to engineer the Crispr creation glimpsed in the young post-doc’s imagination. After much trial and error, they wound up with something even more powerful. The system, which Liu’s lab has dubbed “prime editing,” can for the first time make virtually any alteration—additions, deletions, swapping any single letter for any other—without severing the DNA double helix.
“If Crispr-Cas9 is like scissors and base editors are like pencils, then you can think of prime editors to be like word processors,” Liu told reporters in a press briefing. Why is that a big deal? Because with such fine-tuned command of the genetic code, prime editing could, according to Liu’s calculations, correct around 89 per cent of the mutations that cause heritable human diseases. Working in human cell cultures, his lab has already used prime editors to fix the genetic glitches that cause sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, and Tay-Sachs disease. Those are just three of more than 175 edits the group unveiled in a scientific article published in the journal Nature.
The work “has a strong potential to change the way we edit cells and be transformative,” says Gaétan Burgio, a geneticist at the Australian National University who was not involved in the work, in an email. He was especially impressed at the range of changes prime editing makes possible, including adding up to 44 DNA letters and deleting up to 80. “Overall, the editing efficiency and the versatility shown in this paper are remarkable.”