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Scientists at the Wellcome Sanger Institute have identified 600 new ‘weak-spots’ in cancer by dismantling lab-grown tumours.

The team disabled every genetic instruction inside 30 different type of cancer, one by one, to establish which ones were essential to the cancer’s survival – and so provide a way of treating the disease.

These vulnerabilities may provide a way of offering personalised cancer medicine.  Currently, drugs used to treat cancer patients, such as chemotherapy, work on the whole body and so can have serious side effects.

One of the researchers, Dr Fiona Behan, has personal experience of this; her mother died of cancer after her first round of chemotherapy left her heart too weak to continue treatment.  Dr Behan has stated that she feels this research will open the way for developing drugs that target only the cancer and leave the healthy tissue unaffected.

The research identified 6000 genes that is necessary for the survival of at least one type of cancer.  However, a number of these are beyond the capabilities of our current science.  There are also some we are already aware of, and others are also required in healthy cells.  This leaves 600 vulnerabilities that we could develop drugs for.

This work is a result of another collaboration between technology and science, using the programme Crispr.  It has opened doors to a wide range of genetic modification, making it possible to quickly and cheaply alter DNA.

Crispr previously caused controversy when last year it was used to genetically modify two babies in China to protect them against HIV.  Prof He Jiankui was condemned by several other scientists; this included Dr Helen O’Neill, programme director of Reproductive Science and Women’s Health at University College, who highlighted that Prof He was in fact going against a global ban in his work.

Engineering applicants may be interested to consider the multiple uses that a piece of advanced technology can have, and the ethical considerations that come into play.  Aspiring medics may be interested in considering the way that cancer treatment has developed, as well as the role that technology has in modern medicine.

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