CRISPR base editing gives measure of hope to people with muscular dystrophy
When Martin Weber climbs the steps to his apartment on the fifth floor in Munich, an attentive observer might notice that he walks a little unevenly. “That’s because my calf muscles were the first to lose strength,” Weber explains.
About three years ago, the now 19-year-old university student realized that he suddenly had trouble keeping up with his track team at school. At tennis tournaments, he seemed to lose stamina after the first hour. “But it was still within the norm,” he says. “So it took a while before I noticed something was seriously wrong.” A blood test showed highly elevated liver markers. His parents feared he had liver cancer until a week-long hospital visit and scores of tests led to a diagnosis: hereditary limb-girdle muscular dystrophy, an incurable genetic illness that causes muscles to deteriorate.
As you read this text, you will surely use several muscles without being aware of them: Your heart muscle pumps blood through your arteries, your eye muscles let you follow the words in this sentence, and your hand muscles hold the tablet or cell phone. Muscles make up 40 percent of your body weight; we usually have 656 of them. Now imagine they are slowly losing their strength. No training, no protein shake can rebuild their function.
This is the reality for most people in Simone Spuler’s outpatient clinic at the Charité Hospital in Berlin, Germany: Almost all of her 2,500 patients have muscular dystrophy, a progressive illness striking mostly young people. Muscle decline leads to a wheelchair and, eventually, an early death due to a heart attack or the inability to breathe. In Germany alone, 300,000 people live with this illness, the youngest barely a year old. The CDC estimates that its most common form, Duchenne, affects 1 in every 3,500 to 6,000 male births each year in the United States.
The devastating progression of the disease is what motivates Spuler and her team of 25 scientists to find a cure. In 2019, they made a spectacular breakthrough: For the first time, they successfully used mRNA to introduce the CRISPR-Cas9 tool into human muscle stem cells to repair the dystrophy. “It’s really just one tiny molecule that doesn’t work properly,” Spuler explains.
CRISPR-Cas9 is a technology that lets scientists select and alter parts of the genome. It’s still comparatively new but has advanced quickly since its discovery in the early 2010s. “We now have the possibility to repair certain mutations with genetic editing,” Spuler says. “It’s pure magic.”
She projects a warm, motherly air and a professional calm that inspires trust from her patients. She needs these qualities because the 60-year-old neurologist has one of the toughest jobs in the world: All day long, patients with the incurable diagnosis of muscular dystrophy come to her clinic, and she watches them decline over the years. “Apart from physiotherapy, there is nothing we can recommend right now,” she says. That motivated her early in her career, when she met her first patients at the Max Planck Institute for Neurobiology near Munich in the 1990s. “I knew I had 30, 40 years to find something.”
She learned from the luminaries of her profession with postdocs at the University of California San Diego, Harvard and Johns Hopkins, before serving as a clinical fellow at the Mayo Clinic. In 2005, the Charité offered her the opportunity to establish a specialized clinic for myasthenia, or muscular weakness. An important influence on Spuler, she says, has been the French microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier, who received the Nobel Prize in 2020 along with Jennifer Doudna for their CRISPR research, and has worked in Berlin since 2015.
When CRISPR was first introduced, it was mainly used to cut through DNA. However, the cut can lead to undesired side effects. For the muscle stem cells, Spuler now uses a base editor to repair the damaged molecule with super fine scissors or tweezers.
“Apart from physiotherapy, there is nothing we can recommend right now,” Spuler says about her patients with limb-girdle muscular dystrophy.
Last year, she proved that the method works in mice. Injecting repaired cells into the rodents led to new muscle fibers and, in 2021 and 2022, she passed the first safety meetings with the Paul-Ehrlich Institute, which is responsible for approving human gene editing trials in Germany. She raised the nearly four million Euros needed to test the new method in the first clinical trial in humans with limb-girdle muscular dystrophy, beginning with one muscle that can easily be measured, such as the biceps.
This spring, Weber and his parents drove the 400 miles from Munich to Berlin. At Spuler’s lab, her team took a biopsy from muscles in his left arm. The first two steps – extraction and repair in a culture dish – went according to plan; Spuler was able to repair the mutation in Weber’s cells outside his body.
Next year, Weber will be the youngest participant when Spuler starts to test the method in a trial of five people “in vivo,” inside their bodies. This will be the real moment of truth: Will the participants’ muscles accept the corrected cells? Will the cells multiply and take over the function of damaged cells, just like Spuler was able to do in her lab with the rodents?
The effort is costly and complex. “The biggest challenge is to make absolutely sure that we don’t harm the patient,” Spuler says. This means scanning their entire genomes, “so we don’t accidentally damage or knock out an important gene.”
Weber, who asked not to be identified by his real name, is looking forward to the trial and he feels confident that “the risks are comparatively small because the method will only be applied to one muscle. The worst that can happen is that it doesn’t work. But in the best case, the muscle function will improve.”
He was so impressed with the Charité scientists that he decided to study biology at his university. He’s read extensively about CRISPR, so he understands why he has three healthy siblings. “That’s the statistics,” the biologist in training explains. “You get two sets of genes from each parent, and you have to get two faulty mutations to have muscular dystrophy. So we fit the statistics exactly: One of us four kids inherited the mutation.”
It was his mother, a college teacher, and father, a physicist by training, who heard about Spuler’s research. Even though Weber does not live at home anymore, having a chronically ill son is nearly a full-time job for his mother, Annette. The Berlin visit and the trial are financed separately through private sponsors, but the fights with Weber’s health insurance are frustrating and time-consuming. “Physiotherapy is the only thing that helps a bit,” Weber says, “and yet, they fought us on approving it every step of the way.”
Spuler does not want to evoke unrealistic expectations. “Patients who are wheelchair-bound won’t suddenly get up and walk."
Her son continues to exercise as much as possible. Riding his bicycle to the university has become too difficult, so he got an e-scooter. He had to give up competitive tennis because he does not have the stamina for a two-hour match, but he can still play with his dad or his buddies for an hour. His closest friends know about the diagnosis. “They help me, for instance, to lift something heavy because I can’t do that anymore,” Weber says.
The family was elated to find medical support at the Munich Muscle Center by the German Alliance for Muscular Patients and then at Spuler’s clinic in Berlin. “When you hear that this is a progressive illness with no chance of improvement, your world collapses as a parent,” Annette Weber says. “And then all of a sudden, there is this woman who sees scientific progress as an opportunity. Even just to be able to participate in the study is fantastic.”
Spuler does not want to evoke unrealistic expectations. “Patients who are wheelchair-bound won’t suddenly get up and walk,” she says. After all, she will start by applying the gene editor to only one muscle, “but it would be a big step if even a small muscle that is essential to grip something, or to swallow, regains function.”
Weber agrees. “I understand that I won’t regain 100 percent of my muscle function but even a small improvement or at least halting the deterioration is the goal.”
And yet, Spuler and others are ultimately searching for a true solution. In a separate effort, Massachusetts-based biotech company Sarepta announced this month it will seek expedited regulators’ approval to treat Duchenne patients with its investigational gene therapy. Unlike Spuler’s methods, Sarepta focuses specifically on the Duchenne form of muscular dystrophy, and it uses an adeno-assisted virus to deliver the therapy.
Spuler’s vision is to eventually apply gene editing to the entire body of her patients. To speed up the research, she and a colleague founded a private research company, Myopax. If she is able to prove that the body accepts the edited cells, the technique could be used for other monogenetic illnesses as well. “When we speak of genetic editing, many are scared and say, oh no, this is God’s work,” says Spuler. But she sees herself as a mechanic, not a divine being. “We really just exchange a molecule, that’s it.”
If everything goes well, Weber hopes that ten years from now, he will be the one taking biopsies from the next generation of patients and repairing their genes.
Inside the Atlantis Space Shuttle, astronauts waited for liftoff. At T-minus six seconds, the main engines ignited, rattling the capsule “like a skyscraper in an earthquake,” according to astronaut Tom Jones, describing the 1988 launch in Air & Space Magazine. Liftoff came with what felt like “a massive kick in the back,” he recalled, along with more shaking. As the rocket accelerated to three times the force of gravity on Earth, “It felt as if two of my friends were standing on my chest and wouldn’t get off!” Finally, at 25 times the speed of sound, Atlantis reached orbit. The main engines cut off, and the astronauts were weightless.
Since 1961, NASA has sent hundreds of astronauts into space while working to making their voyages safer and smoother. Yet, challenges remain. Weightlessness may look amusing when watched from Earth, but it has myriad effects on cognition, movement and other functions. When missions to space stretch to six months or longer, microgravity can harm astronauts’ health and performance, making it more difficult to operate their spacecraft.
Yesterday, NASA astronaut Frank Rubio returned to Earth after over one year, the longest single spaceflight for a U.S. astronaut. But this is just the start; longer and more complex missions into deep space loom ahead, from returning to the moon in 2025 to eventually sending humans to Mars. Understanding how spaceflight affects the body is vital to success. By studying these impacts, NASA aims to help astronauts perform in space as well as they do on Earth.
The dangers of microgravity are real
A NASA report published in 2016 details a long list of incidents and near-misses caused – at least partly – by space-induced changes in astronauts’ vision and coordination. These issues make it harder to move with precision and to judge distance and velocity.
According to the report, in 1997, a resupply ship collided with the Mir space station, possibly because a crew member bumped into the commander during the final docking maneuver. This mishap caused significant damage to the space station.
Returns to Earth suffered from problems, too. The same report notes that touchdown speeds during the first 100 space shuttle landings were “outside acceptable limits. The fastest landing on record – 224 knots (258 miles) per hour – was linked to the commander’s momentary spatial disorientation.” Earlier, each of the six Apollo crews that landed on the moon had difficulty recognizing moon landmarks and estimating distances. For example, Apollo 15 landed in an unplanned area, ultimately straddling the rim of a five-foot deep crater on the moon, harming one of its engines.
Spaceflight causes unique stresses on astronauts’ brains and central nervous systems. NASA is working to reduce these harmful effects.
Space messes up your brain
In space, astronauts face the challenges of microgravity, ionizing radiation, social isolation, high workloads, altered circadian rhythms, monotony, confined living quarters and a high-risk environment. Among these issues, microgravity is one of the most consequential in terms of physiological changes. It changes the brain’s structure and its functioning, which can hurt astronauts’ performance.
The brain shifts upwards within the skull, displacing the cerebrospinal fluid, which reduces the brain’s cushioning. Essentially, the brain becomes crowded inside the skull like a pair of too-tight shoes.
That’s partly because of how being in space alters blood flow. On Earth, gravity pulls our blood and other internal fluids toward our feet, but our circulatory valves ensure that the fluids are evenly distributed throughout the body. In space, there’s not enough gravity to pull the fluids down, and they shift up, says Rachael D. Seidler, a physiologist specializing in spaceflight at the University of Florida and principal investigator on many space-related studies. The head swells and legs appear thinner, causing what astronauts call “puffy face chicken legs.”
“The brain changes at the structural and functional level,” says Steven Jillings, equilibrium and aerospace researcher at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. “The brain shifts upwards within the skull,” displacing the cerebrospinal fluid, which reduces the brain’s cushioning. Essentially, the brain becomes crowded inside the skull like a pair of too-tight shoes. Some of the displaced cerebrospinal fluid goes into cavities within the brain, called ventricles, enlarging them. “The remaining fluids pool near the chest and heart,” explains Jillings. After 12 consecutive months in space, one astronaut had a ventricle that was 25 percent larger than before the mission.
Some changes reverse themselves while others persist for a while. An example of a longer-lasting problem is spaceflight-induced neuro-ocular syndrome, which results in near-sightedness and pressure inside the skull. A study of approximately 300 astronauts shows near-sightedness affects about 60 percent of astronauts after long missions on the International Space Station (ISS) and more than 25 percent after spaceflights of only a few weeks.
Another long-term change could be the decreased ability of cerebrospinal fluid to clear waste products from the brain, Seidler says. That’s because compressing the brain also compresses its waste-removing glymphatic pathways, resulting in inflammation, vulnerability to injuries and worsening its overall health.
The effects of long space missions were best demonstrated on astronaut twins Scott and Mark Kelly. This NASA Twins Study showed multiple, perhaps permanent, changes in Scott after his 340-day mission aboard the ISS, compared to Mark, who remained on Earth. The differences included declines in Scott’s speed, accuracy and cognitive abilities that persisted longer than six months after returning to Earth in March 2016.
By the end of 2020, Scott’s cognitive abilities improved, but structural and physiological changes to his eyes still remained, he said in a BBC interview.
“It seems clear that the upward shift of the brain and compression of the surrounding tissues with ventricular expansion might not be a good thing,” Seidler says. “But, at this point, the long-term consequences to brain health and human performance are not really known.”
NASA astronaut Kate Rubins conducts a session for the Neuromapping investigation.
Staying sharp in space
To investigate how prolonged space travel affects the brain, NASA launched a new initiative called the Complement of Integrated Protocols for Human Exploration Research (CIPHER). “CIPHER investigates how long-duration spaceflight affects both brain structure and function,” says neurobehavioral scientist Mathias Basner at the University of Pennsylvania, a principal investigator for several NASA studies. “Through it, we can find out how the brain adapts to the spaceflight environment and how certain brain regions (behave) differently after – relative to before – the mission.”
To do this, he says, “Astronauts will perform NASA’s cognition test battery before, during and after six- to 12-month missions, and will also perform the same test battery in an MRI scanner before and after the mission. We have to make sure we better understand the functional consequences of spaceflight on the human brain before we can send humans safely to the moon and, especially, to Mars.”
As we go deeper into space, astronauts cognitive and physical functions will be even more important. “A trip to Mars will take about one year…and will introduce long communication delays,” Seidler says. “If you are on that mission and have a problem, it may take eight to 10 minutes for your message to reach mission control, and another eight to 10 minutes for the response to get back to you.” In an emergency situation, that may be too late for the response to matter.
“On a mission to Mars, astronauts will be exposed to stressors for unprecedented amounts of time,” Basner says. To counter them, NASA is considering the continuous use of artificial gravity during the journey, and Seidler is studying whether artificial gravity can reduce the harmful effects of microgravity. Some scientists are looking at precision brain stimulation as a way to improve memory and reduce anxiety due to prolonged exposure to radiation in space.
To boldly go where no astronauts have gone before, they must have optimal reflexes, vision and decision-making. In the era of deep space exploration, the brain—without a doubt—is the final frontier.
Additionally, NASA is scrutinizing each aspect of the mission, including astronaut exercise, nutrition and intellectual engagement. “We need to give astronauts meaningful work. We need to stimulate their sensory, cognitive and other systems appropriately,” Basner says, especially given their extreme confinement and isolation. The scientific experiments performed on the ISS – like studying how microgravity affects the ability of tissue to regenerate is a good example.
“We need to keep them engaged socially, too,” he continues. The ISS crew, for example, regularly broadcasts from space and answers prerecorded questions from students on Earth, and can engage with social media in real time. And, despite tight quarters, NASA is ensuring the crew capsule and living quarters on the moon or Mars include private space, which is critical for good mental health.
Exploring deep space builds on a foundation that began when astronauts first left the planet. With each mission, scientists learn more about spaceflight effects on astronauts’ bodies. NASA will be using these lessons to succeed with its plans to build science stations on the moon and, eventually, Mars.
“Through internally and externally led research, investigations implemented in space and in spaceflight simulations on Earth, we are striving to reduce the likelihood and potential impacts of neurostructural changes in future, extended spaceflight,” summarizes NASA scientist Alexandra Whitmire. To boldly go where no astronauts have gone before, they must have optimal reflexes, vision and decision-making. In the era of deep space exploration, the brain—without a doubt—is the final frontier.
Swiss researchers have discovered a third type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other primary types — and it could lead to new treatments for many brain disorders.
The challenge: Most of the cells in the brain are either neurons or glial cells. While neurons use electrical and chemical signals to send messages to one another across small gaps called synapses, glial cells exist to support and protect neurons.
Astrocytes are a type of glial cell found near synapses. This close proximity to the place where brain signals are sent and received has led researchers to suspect that astrocytes might play an active role in the transmission of information inside the brain — a.k.a. “neurotransmission” — but no one has been able to prove the theory.
A new brain cell: Researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Lausanne believe they’ve definitively proven that some astrocytes do actively participate in neurotransmission, making them a sort of hybrid of neurons and glial cells.
According to the researchers, this third type of brain cell, which they call a “glutamatergic astrocyte,” could offer a way to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other disorders of the nervous system.
“Its discovery opens up immense research prospects,” said study co-director Andrea Volterra.
The study: Neurotransmission starts with a neuron releasing a chemical called a neurotransmitter, so the first thing the researchers did in their study was look at whether astrocytes can release the main neurotransmitter used by neurons: glutamate.
By analyzing astrocytes taken from the brains of mice, they discovered that certain astrocytes in the brain’s hippocampus did include the “molecular machinery” needed to excrete glutamate. They found evidence of the same machinery when they looked at datasets of human glial cells.
Finally, to demonstrate that these hybrid cells are actually playing a role in brain signaling, the researchers suppressed their ability to secrete glutamate in the brains of mice. This caused the rodents to experience memory problems.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Andrea Volterra, University of Lausanne.
But why? The researchers aren’t sure why the brain needs glutamatergic astrocytes when it already has neurons, but Volterra suspects the hybrid brain cells may help with the distribution of signals — a single astrocyte can be in contact with thousands of synapses.
“Often, we have neuronal information that needs to spread to larger ensembles, and neurons are not very good for the coordination of this,” researcher Ludovic Telley told New Scientist.
Looking ahead: More research is needed to see how the new brain cell functions in people, but the discovery that it plays a role in memory in mice suggests it might be a worthwhile target for Alzheimer’s disease treatments.
The researchers also found evidence during their study that the cell might play a role in brain circuits linked to seizures and voluntary movements, meaning it’s also a new lead in the hunt for better epilepsy and Parkinson’s treatments.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Volterra.