… The Karolinska and Novartis groups tested CRISPR on different kinds of human cells — retinal cells and pluripotent stem cells, respectively. But they found essentially the same phenomenon. Standard CRISPR-Cas9 works by cutting both strands of the DNA double helix. That injury causes a cell to activate a biochemical first-aid kit orchestrated by a gene called p53, which either mends the DNA break or makes the cell self-destruct.
Whichever action p53 takes, the consequence is the same: CRISPR doesn’t work, either because the genome edit is stitched up or the cell is dead. (The Novartis team calculated that p53 reduces CRISPR efficiency in pluripotent stem cells seventeenfold.) That might explain something found over and over: CRISPR is woefully inefficient, with only a small minority of cells into which CRISPR is introduced, usually by a virus, actually having their genomes edited as intended.
“We found that cutting the genome with CRISPR-Cas9 induced the activation of … p53,” said Emma Haapaniemi, the lead author of the Karolinska study. That “makes editing much more difficult.”
The flip side of p53 repairing CRISPR edits, or killing cells that accept the edits, is that cells that survive with the edits do so precisely because they have a dysfunctional p53 and therefore lack this fix-it-or-kill-it mechanism.
The reason why that could be a problem is that p53 dysfunction can cause cancer. And not just occasionally. P53 mutations are responsible for nearly half of ovarian cancers; 43 percent of colorectal cancers; 38 percent of lung cancers; nearly one-third of pancreatic, stomach, and liver cancers; and one-quarter of breast cancers, among others….