Here’s how a Nobel Prize winning technology is being used to find a cure for oral cancer

This year, Professors Doudna and Charpentier were jointly awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery of CRISPR-Cas9, a genome editing technology that allows scientists to deftly edit DNA from virtually any living thing with precision and ease as never before possible.  Is this relevant to cancer research right here in Malaysia?  Heck YES! 

Our scientists have used CRISPR-Cas9 technology to identify genes which make cancer cells different from normal cells and this is the first in the world to shine light on a cancer that is common in Asians. [for the tech savvy, do read it more here: recently published by eLife].  

The study started in 2017 when we were one of only 12 winners of the Newton-Ungku Omar Fund (NUOF). The scientists in the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge, UK had the technology and we had the world’s largest library of Asian oral cancer cells lines. Voila, a perfect match! 

Our research team posing with former British High Commissioner to Malaysia, Vicki Treadell  (centre) during the awarding of the Newton-Ungku Omar Fund via the Medical Research Council, UK.  

Then came the hard part.  We had to systematically delete 20,000 genes in 21 oral cancer cell lines. This involved growing more than 1,000 flasks of cancer cells extracting their DNA for analysis, and then mining through huge amounts of data to find the “needle in the haystack” – the handful of genes which when CRISPR-ed out, the cells would die.  [And of course, being scientists, we had to repeat the experiments numerous times to make sure the data is robust and reproducible i.e. more flasks, more DNA extract and yet more TBs of data…close to 6 million data points to filter through just to find the few that could work].   

Dr Annie Chai, one of our scientists behind this study during her visit to the Wellcome Sanger Institute in the UK 

But all the effort paid off!  We found a small set of genes [out of the 20,000] that when CRISPR-ed out would kill the cancer cells.  Could CRISPR be used one day to kill these same genes in cancer patients so that we can kill the cancers?  Yes, but that would be hard (and too expensive).  So instead, we are now looking for drugs that can do the same job – drugs that can specifically kill the proteins made by these “essential” genes. 

And the good news is that we have won a grant to find those drugs that could work. The race is now on to systematically screen hundreds of compounds to find those that may be taken forward to clinical trials as new treatment options for oral cancer patients. 

“The NUOF enabled the collaboration of scientists between the laboratories in Malaysia and the UK. We learnt how to conduct these CRISPR/Cas9 screens at the Wellcome Sanger Institute and currently conduct these experiments here in Cancer Research Malaysia,” – Dr. Annie Chai.

Dr Annie Chai with Professor Mathew Garnett and the research team from the Wellcome Sanger Institute

Amazing, right?  That this is done right here in Malaysia, ordinary Malaysians doing extraordinary work.  Why do we work as hard as we do? Every year, more than 800,000 are affected by head and neck cancers, with Asians making up nearly 70% of those cases. Survival is bad, and the worst thing is that it hasn’t improved much in the past 30 years (unlike in other cancers), simply because there is a lack of investment in Asian cancers. 

Cancer Research Malaysia’s Head and Neck cancer team

Support Cancer Research Malaysia and help us save more lives through impactful research in Asians. Our work is entirely funded by grants and charity and every ringgit counts. 

Learn more about Cancer Research Malaysia

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