A contingent of researchers from the UK, Germany, and Spain have recently developed a novel CRISPR/Cas9 system that they believe can be utilized as a multiplexed screening approach to study and model cancer development in mice. In the current study, the investigators directly mutated genes within adult mouse livers to elucidate their role in cancer development and progression—simultaneously uncovering the gene combinations that coordinate to cause liver cancer.
“We reasoned that, by targeting mutations directly to adult liver cells using CRISPR/Cas9, we could better study and understand the biology of this important cancer,” explained co-author Mathias Friedrich, Ph.D., research scientist at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. “Other approaches to engineer mutations in mice, such as stem cell manipulation, are limited by the laborious process, the long time frames and large numbers of animals needed. And, our method better mimics important aspects of human cancer biology than many “classic” mouse models: as in most human cancers, the mutations occur in the adult and only affect a few cells”.
The findings from this study were published online recently in PNAS through an article entitled “CRISPR/Cas9 somatic multiplex-mutagenesis for high-throughput functional cancer genomics in mice.”
This new approach is rapid, scalable, and extremely efficient, allowing the researchers to examine an array of genes or large regions of the genome concurrently. Moreover, this methodology affords scientists the ability to distinguish between cancer driver mutations and passenger mutations—those that occur as side-effects of cancer development.
The research team developed a list of up to eighteen genes with known or unknown evidence for their importance in two forms of liver cancer. They then introduced the CRISPR/Cas9 molecules, targeting various combinations of these genes into mice, which subsequently developed liver or bile duct cancer within a few months.
“Our approach enables us to simultaneously target multiple putative genes in individual cells,” noted co-author Roland Rad, Ph.D., project leader at the Technical University of Munich and the German Cancer Research Center Heidelberg. “We can now rapidly and efficiently screen which genes are cancer-causing and which ones are not. And, we can study how genes work together to cause cancers—a crucial piece of the puzzle we must solve to understand and tackle the disease.”
The investigators were able to confirm that a set of DNA-binding proteins called ARID (AT-rich interactive domain), influence the organization of chromosomes and are important for liver cancer development. Furthermore, mutations in a second protein, TET2, were found to be causative in bile duct cancer: although TET2 has not been found to be mutated in human biliary cancers, the proteins that it interacts with have been, showing that the CRISPR/Cas9 method can identify human cancer genes that are not mutated, but whose function is disturbed by other events.
“The new tools of targeting genes in combination and inducing insertions or deletions in chromosomes change our ability to identify new cancer-causing genes and to understand their role in cancer,” stated senior group leader and co-author Allan Bradley, Ph.D., director emeritus from the Sanger Institute. “Our results show that this approach is feasible and productive in liver cancer; we will now continue to study our new findings and try to extend the approach to other cancer types.”
This CRISPR/Cas9 approach may also be favorable for an in-depth examination of genomic deserts —regions within the human genome that appear to be devoid of genes. Yet, recent data from the ENCODE Project suggests that deserts can be populated, if not by genes, then by DNA regulatory regions that influence the activity of genes.
“Liver cancer has many DNA alterations in regions lacking genes: we don't know which of these might be important for the disease,” said Dr. Rad. “However, we could show that it is now possible to delete such regions to systematically determine their role in liver cancer development.”