A backlit digital representation of DNA made of small blue dots.

What You Need to Know About CRISPR and Liver Cancer

  • Cancer that starts in the liver is called primary liver cancer. Hepatocellular carcinoma, or HCC, is the most common type of primary liver cancer. Some people are surprised to learn that HCC is often caused by hepatitis B and C viruses. Now that hepatitis C virus infections can be cured, Christoph Seeger, PhD, of Fox Chase Cancer Center wants to help make sure that the estimated 257 million people living with chronic hepatitis B don’t get HCC.

    A portrait shot of Christoph Seeger crossing his arms as he smiles at the camera.

    And he’s doing it using a technique called CRISPR.

    CRISPR is a genome editing technique used to edit DNA in a way that’s quicker and more precise than ever before. It can be used to snip out an unwanted or faulty piece of DNA and replace it with a new piece. CRISPR is a guidance system that comprises an enzyme called Cas9 that act as molecular scissors.

    The hepatitis B virus can stash its genetic information in covalently closed circular DNA (cccDNA) that is incredibly stable and persists for a long time in infected liver cells. The researchers in Seeger’s lab have been busy using CRISPR systems to explore how they can eliminate this cccDNA from infected cells. Seeger and his colleagues have already been able to inactivate hepatitis B cccDNA in infected liver cells. These results hint at the potential of CRISPR-based technology in helping to cure chronic hepatitis B and preventing HCC.

    CRISPR/Cas9 Erases and Replaces Genetic Mutations

    CRISPR-Cas9 is a genome editing tool that consists of two important components:

    - The Cas9 enzyme functions as “molecular scissors” that can snip out or add DNA

    - Guide RNA leads Cas9 to the right place on the genome.


    The CRISPR Advantage in Early Detection of Cancer

    “CRISPR has the potential to play a role in curing chronic hepatitis B, and hepatitis B remains one of the biggest causes of HCC,” Seeger explained. “Early detection is absolutely critical in cancer. CRISPR might eventually be used to detect just a few cancer cells, which means it could one day play a major role in cancer prevention.” There is no question that early detection of cancer is a major factor in successful treatment of cancers.

    “As research progresses there will be many more opportunities to deploy CRISPR,” Seeger told us. “There is much more to be done to understand how future therapies may benefit from CRISPR. As we obtain a better understanding of the cells that are responsible for continuous cancer growth, it might be possible to target and destroy these cells using CRISPR technology.”

    Dr. Seeger is a professor of Virology and contributed to the application of the CRISPR-Cas9 system at Fox Chase Cancer Center.