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News digest – landmark week for CRISPR genome editing, cancer-preventing drugs, lifetime weight and…‘manageable’ pancreatic cancer?

by Nick Peel | Analysis

18 February 2017

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DNA sequence
  • It was a big week for the much-lauded genome editing technology CRISPR. On Tuesday, a panel of science and ethics experts representing 2 major US institutions published a report saying the technology could be used in the future to modify genes inside human embryos, sperm or eggs. But only once the process is proven to be safe and if no alternatives are available. The Guardian, STAT News and New Scientist have more on this.
  • The report was followed on Wednesday by the long-awaited result of the legal case over who ‘owns’ the CRISPR technology (if you discount the bacteria from which it originates). The US patent office ruled in favour of the Broad Institute, which will have huge implications for how the technique is used in the future, as STAT News reports.


  • This excitement led one British scientist to speculate on how the technique could potentially “wipe out” inherited diseases, including some cancers, “within just 2 decades”, according to the Mail Online. But it’s far too early to say what the future might hold for the approach as a treatment.

Number of the week


The percentage of GPs who said in our survey that they would like a second opinion before prescribing tamoxifen for women at high risk of breast cancer.

  • In labs, however, CRISPR is already making a splash. And this week a team of our scientists from Edinburgh revealed they had successfully used the technique to make changes to specialised neural stem cells in the lab. The scientific first could have a big impact on what researchers can learn about brain tumours. We blogged about the study and its implications.
  • We published a report showing that GPs need more support if they’re to prescribe certain cancer-preventing drugs, such as tamoxifen, for women at high-risk of breast cancer. Some media reports were a little forward in saying women were being “denied” these drugs, as this excellent summary from NHS Choices makes clear. We also blogged about the report.
  • The Royal College of Radiologists said Scottish radiology services are “on the brink of collapse” due to a combination of long-term job vacancies, low trainee numbers and increasing numbers of patients. We covered this, as did the Telegraph.
  • Too many people in Wales are being diagnosed with cancer at a late stage, according to the Welsh government’s 2016 Cancer Annual Report. We covered this.
  • GPs and nurses would like a way of calculating patients’ personal risk of cancer, according to a study covered by the Telegraph and Mirror. But how would patients feel about this? More research is needed to find out, and to see if a risk calculator would work in practice.
  • The Independent looked at why cancer rates are rising faster in women than in men.
  • People who are overweight in their twenties and become obese later in life may be 3 times more likely to develop oesophageal or upper stomach cancer, highlighting the importance of keeping a healthy weight throughout life. The Guardian has more on this.
  • The Family Spending Survey from the Office for National Statistics reports that UK households spent less on cigarettes and alcohol in the last financial year (2015-16) than in previous years, reports the BBC.

And finally

  • Headlines claiming that a “new treatment” could make pancreatic cancer “a manageable disease” were pushing it a bit given the stage the research, featured in The Conversation and Express, is at. An experimental drug tested on cells in a lab is quite different to the treatment a patient receives in hospital, so it’s too soon to raise hope that this drug may stop pancreatic cancer, a devastatingly hard-to-treat disease, from spreading.