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HPV's Genes Can Be Edited To Kill Cervical Cancer

Update Date: Aug 09, 2014 02:09 PM EDT

Researchers have taken over a defense system generally used by bacteria to fend off viral infections and redirected it against the human papillomavirus (HPV), according to a new study. HPV is responsible for cervical, head and neck cancers. 

With the help of genome editing tool dubbed 'CRISPR', researchers selectively destroyed two viral genes responsible for the survival and growth of cervical carcinoma cells, eventually causing cancer-cells to self-destruct. 

"Because this approach is only going after viral genes, there should be no off-target effects on normal cells," said Bryan R. Cullen, Ph.D., senior study author and professor of molecular genetics and microbiology at Duke University School of Medicine, in the press release. "You can think of this as targeting a missile that will destroy a certain target. You put in a code that tells the missile exactly what to hit, and it will only hit that, and it won't hit anything else because it doesn't have the code for another target."

Specifically, researchers went after the viral genes E6 and E7. These are two "oncogenes" that block the host's own efforts to keep cancer cells at bay, the press release added. 

"As soon as you turn off E6 or E7, the host defense mechanisms are allowed to come back on again, because they have been there this whole time, but they have been turned off by HPV," Cullen said. "What happens is the cell immediately commits suicide."

Researchers added that they were also targeting other viruses who use DNA as their genetic material such as hepatitis B and herpes simplex virus. 

The findings of the study is published in the Journal of Virology.

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