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Genetic scissors in the hands of students at the Ecole Polytechnique

Easy to use in the laboratory, CRISPR/Cas9 is a tool for altering the DNA of cells at precise locations. Each year, the "Personalised reconstruction of the tumour process" sponsorship teaches its mechanisms through new application cases of the evolution of a healthy cell into a cancer cell.

For the start of the 2021 academic year, the "Personalised reconstruction of the tumour process" teaching sponsorship offers third-year students of the Polytechnique engineering cyclethe opportunity to identify the "Achilles heel" of tumour cells from breast cancer. Each year, the sponsorship programme proposes a new genetic study project focused on cancer cells. This exploration is made possible by Crispr/Cas9, an assembly of proteins (called a complex) that can cut or alter the DNA of cells by targeting specific areas. Its particular mode of action has earned it the nickname 'genetic scissors'.

Today, CRISPR/Cas9 is widely used in research for its ability to specifically inactivate a gene by cutting or altering it. Its usefulness as a genetic tool is such that Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020 for their participation in the discovery of this phenomenon.

It is precisely the use and understanding of this tool and genomic engineering methods that the Servier Group-supported sponsorship, led by Alexis Gautreau, CNRS research director at the Laboratory of Structural Biology of the Cell (BIOC)* and professor at the École Polytechnique, proposes. The students will be guided during these experiments by Dmitry Guschin since his arrival in the programme at the beginning of 2021. Before joining the École Polytechnique as a research engineer, Dmitry worked in the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology and Center for Genome Engineering of the Institute of Basic Science in South Korea among other places, as an expert in genomic engineering.

Using this tool, last year the students reproduced the successive mutations of a cell that has become cancerous in healthy cells in order to understand the first stages of oncogenesis, i.e. the formation of a tumour. This year, the sponsorship offers students the opportunity to understand the functioning of a specific cancer cell and to find its weaknesses by identifying the key mutations necessary for its proliferation. In addition to its educational aspect, these experiments show that it is possible to use more precise and personalised treatments than conventional chemotherapy to fight cancer.

*BIOC: a joint CNRS, École Polytechnique - Institut Polytechnique de Paris research unit

>> About the sponsorship Program:
Created in 2019, the "Personalised Reconstitution of the Tumour Process" teaching and research sponsorship seeks to understand the process that leads to the formation of a tumour in a given breast cancer patient.  For this purpose, the various genetic alterations of the patient's tumour are sequentially introduced into the genome of the healthy cell in order to obtain an avatar of the tumour. These artificially recreated tumours allow a better understanding of how tumours develop and provide a system in which to test different chemotherapies to identify the most appropriate one for the patient. This sponsorship from the Servier Group, led by Alexis Gautreau, will introduce students at the École Polytechnique to personalised cancer medicine and genome editing techniques, thanks to a full immersion in the laboratory.