Trying to get a handle on CRISPR news in 2019 can be daunting if you haven't been avidly reading up on it for the last five years.
CRISPR as a diagnostic tool would be a major game changer for medicine and agriculture.
On top of trying to grasp how the science works, and keeping track of its ever expanding applications, you may also have seen coverage of an ongoing legal battle about who owns the intellectual property behind the gene-editing technology CRISPR-Cas9. And then there's the infamous controversy surrounding a scientist who claimed to have used the tool to edit the genomes of two babies in China last year.
But gene editing is not the only application of CRISPR-based biotechnologies. In the future, it may also be used as a tool to diagnose infectious diseases, which could be a major game changer for medicine and agriculture.
How It Works
CRISPR is an acronym for a naturally occurring DNA sequence that normally protects microbes from viruses. It's been compared to a Swiss army knife that can recognize an invader's DNA and precisely destroy it. Repurposed for humans, CRISPR can be paired with a protein called Cas9 that can detect a person's own DNA sequence (usually a problematic one), cut it out, and replace it with a different sequence. Used this way, CRISPR-Cas9 has become a valuable gene-editing tool that is currently being tested to treat numerous genetic diseases, from cancer to blood disorders to blindness.
CRISPR can also be paired with other proteins, like Cas13, which target RNA, the single-stranded twin of DNA that viruses rely on to infect their hosts and cause disease. In a future clinical setting, CRISPR-Cas13 might be used to diagnose whether you have the flu by cutting a target RNA sequence from the virus. That spliced sequence could stick to a paper test strip, causing a band to show up, like on a pregnancy test strip. If the influenza virus and its RNA are not present, no band would show up.
To understand how close to reality this diagnostic scenario is right now, leapsmag chatted with CRISPR pioneer Dr. Feng Zhang, a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.
What do you think might be the first point of contact that a regular person or patient would have with a CRISPR diagnostic tool?
FZ: I think in the long run it will be great to see this for, say, at-home disease testing, for influenza and other sorts of important public health [concerns]. To be able to get a readout at home, people can potentially quarantine themselves rather than traveling to a hospital and then carrying the risk of spreading that disease to other people as they get to the clinic.
"You could conceivably get a readout during the same office visit, and then the doctor will be able to prescribe the right treatment right away."
Is this just something that people will use at home, or do you also foresee clinical labs at hospitals applying CRISPR-Cas13 to samples that come through?
FZ: I think we'll see applications in both settings, and I think there are advantages to both. One of the nice things about SHERLOCK [a playful acronym for CRISPR-Cas13's longer name, Specific High-sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter unLOCKing] is that it's rapid; you can get a readout fairly quickly. So, right now, what people do in hospitals is they will collect your sample and then they'll send it out to a clinical testing lab, so you wouldn't get a result back until many hours if not several days later. With SHERLOCK, you could conceivably get a readout during the same office visit, and then the doctor will be able to prescribe the right treatment right away.
I just want to clarify that when you say a doctor would take a sample, that's referring to urine, blood, or saliva, correct?
FZ: Right. Yeah, exactly.
Thinking more long term, are there any Holy Grail applications that you hope CRISPR reaches as a diagnostic tool?
FZ: I think in the developed world we'll hopefully see this being used for influenza testing, and many other viral and pathogen-based diseases—both at home and also in the hospital—but I think the even more exciting direction is that this could be used and deployed in parts of the developing world where there isn't a fancy laboratory with elaborate instrumentation. SHERLOCK is relatively inexpensive to develop, and you can turn it into a paper strip test.
Can you quantify what you mean by relatively inexpensive? What range of prices are we talking about here?
FZ: So without accounting for economies of scale, we estimate that it can cost less than a dollar per test. With economy of scale that cost can go even lower.
Is there value in developing what is actually quite an innovative tool in a way that visually doesn't seem innovative because it's reminiscent of a pregnancy test? And I don't mean that as an insult.
FZ: [Laughs] Ultimately, we want the technology to be as accessible as possible, and pregnancy test strips have such a convenient and easy-to-use form. I think modeling after something that people are already familiar with and just changing what's under the hood makes a lot of sense.
(Photo credit: Justin Knight, McGovern Institute)
It's probably one of the most accessible at-home diagnostic tools at this point that people are familiar with.
FZ: Yeah, so if people know how to use that, then using something that's very similar to it should make the option very easy.
You've been quite vocal in calling for some pauses in CRISPR-Cas9 research to make sure it doesn't outpace the ethics of establishing pregnancies with that version of the tool. Do you have any concerns about using CRISPR-Cas13 as a diagnostic tool?
I think overall, the reception for CRISPR-based diagnostics has been overwhelmingly positive. People are very excited about the prospect of using this—for human health and also in agriculture [for] detection of plant infections and plant pathogens, so that farmers will be able to react quickly to infection in the field. If we're looking at contamination of foods by certain bacteria, [food safety] would also be a really exciting application.
Do you feel like the controversies surrounding using CRISPR as a gene-editing tool have overshadowed its potential as a diagnostics tool?
FZ: I don't think so. I think the potential for using CRISPR-Cas9 or CRISPR-Cas12 for gene therapy, and treating disease, has captured people's imaginations, but at the same time, every time I talk with someone about the ability to use CRISPR-Cas13 as a diagnostic tool, people are equally excited. Especially when people see the very simple paper strip that we developed for detecting diseases.
Are CRISPR as a gene-editing tool and CRISPR as a diagnostics tool on different timelines, as far as when the general public might encounter them in their real lives?
FZ: I think they are all moving forward quite quickly. CRISPR as a gene-editing tool is already being deployed in human health and agriculture. We've already seen the approval for the development of growing genome-edited mushrooms, soybeans, and other crop species. So I think people will encounter those in their daily lives in that manner.
Then, of course, for disease treatment, that's progressing rapidly as well. For patients who are affected by sickle cell disease, and also by a degenerative eye disease, clinical trials are already starting in those two areas. Diagnostic tests are also developing quickly, and I think in the coming couple of years, we'll begin to see some of these reaching into the public realm.
"There are probably 7,000 genetic diseases identified today, and most of them don't have any way of being treated."
As far its limits, will it be hard to use CRISPR as a diagnostic tool in situations where we don't necessarily understand the biological underpinnings of a disease?
FZ: CRISPR-Cas13, as a diagnostic tool, at least in the current way that it's implemented, is a detection tool—it's not a discovery tool. So if we don't know what we're looking for, then it's going to be hard to develop Cas13 to detect it. But even in the case of a new infectious disease, if DNA sequencing or RNA sequencing information is available for that new virus, then we can very rapidly program a Cas13-based system to detect it, based on that sequence.
What's something you think the public misunderstands about CRISPR, either in general, or specifically as a diagnostic tool, that you wish were better understood?
FZ: That's a good question. CRISPR-Cas9 and CRISPR-Cas12 as gene editing tools, and also CRISPR-Cas13 as a diagnostic tool, are able to do some things, but there are still a lot of capabilities that need to be further developed. So I think the potential for the technology will unfold over the next decade or so, but it will take some time for the full impact of the technology to really get realized in real life.
What do you think that full impact is?
FZ: There are probably 7,000 genetic diseases identified today, and most of them don't have any way of being treated. It will take some time for CRISPR-Cas9 and Cas12 to be really developed for addressing a larger number of those diseases. And then for CRISPR-based diagnostics, I think you'll see the technology being applied in a couple of initial cases, and it will take some time to develop that more broadly for many other applications.
Jessica Ware is obsessed with bugs.
My guest today is a leading researcher on insects, the president of the Entomological Society of America and a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. Learn more about her here.
You may not think that insects and human health go hand-in-hand, but as Jessica makes clear, they’re closely related. A lot of people care about their health, and the health of other creatures on the planet, and the health of the planet itself, but researchers like Jessica are studying another thing we should be focusing on even more: how these seemingly separate areas are deeply entwined. (This is the theme of an upcoming event hosted by Leaps.org and the Aspen Institute.)
Listen to the Episode
Entomologist Jessica Ware
D. Finnin / AMNH
Maybe it feels like a core human instinct to demonize bugs as gross. We seem to try to eradicate them in every way possible, whether that’s with poison, or getting out our blood thirst by stomping them whenever they creep and crawl into sight.
But where did our fear of bugs really come from? Jessica makes a compelling case that a lot of it is cultural, rather than in-born, and we should be following the lead of other cultures that have learned to live with and appreciate bugs.
The truth is that a healthy planet depends on insects. You may feel stung by that news if you hate bugs. Reality bites.
Jessica and I talk about whether learning to live with insects should include eating them and gene editing them so they don’t transmit viruses. She also tells me about her important research into using genomic tools to track bugs in the wild to figure out why and how we’ve lost 50 percent of the insect population since 1970 according to some estimates – bad news because the ecosystems that make up the planet heavily depend on insects. Jessica is leading the way to better understand what’s causing these declines in order to start reversing these trends to save the insects and to save ourselves.
The first thing Jeroen Perk saw after he partially regained his sight nearly a decade ago was the outline of his guide dog Pedro.
“There was a white floor, and the dog was black,” recalls Perk, a 43-year-old investigator for the Dutch customs service. “I was crying. It was a very nice moment.”
Perk was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a child and had been blind since early adulthood. He has been able to use the implant placed into his retina in 2013 to help identify street crossings, and even ski and pursue archery. A video posted by the company that designed and manufactured the device indicates he’s a good shot.
Less black-and-white has been the journey Perk and others have been on after they were implanted with the Argus II, a second-generation device created by a Los Angeles-based company called Second Sight Medical Devices.
The Argus II uses the implant and a video camera embedded in a special pair of glasses to provide limited vision to those with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that causes cells in the retina to deteriorate. The camera feeds information to the implant, which sends electrical impulses into the retina to recapitulate what the camera sees. The impulses appear in the Argus II as a 60-pixel grid of blacks, grays and whites in the user’s eye that can render rough outlines of objects and their motion.
Smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Ross Doerr, a retired disability rights attorney in Maine who received an Argus II in 2019, describes the field of vision as the equivalent of an index card held at arm’s length. Perk often brings objects close to his face to decipher them. Moreover, users must swivel their heads to take in visual data; moving their eyeballs does not work.
Despite its limitations, the Argus II beats the alternative. Perk no longer relies on his guide dog. Doerr was uplifted when he was able to see the outlines of Christmas trees at a holiday show.
“The fairy godmother department sort of reaches out and taps you on the shoulder once in a while,” Doerr says of his implant, which came about purely by chance. A surgeon treating his cataracts was partnered with the son of another surgeon who was implanting the devices, and he was referred.
Doerr had no reason to believe the shower of fairy dust wouldn’t continue. Second Sight held out promises that the Argus II recipients’ vision would gradually improve through upgrades to much higher pixel densities. The ability to recognize individual faces was even touted as a possibility. In the winter of 2020, Doerr was preparing to travel across the U.S. to Second Sight’s headquarters to receive an upgrade. But then COVID-19 descended, and the trip was canceled.
The pandemic also hit Second Sight’s bottom line. Doerr found out about its tribulations only from one of the company’s vision therapists, who told him the entire department was being laid off. Second Sight cut nearly 80% of its workforce in March 2020 and announced it would wind down operations.
Ross Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market.
Second Sight’s implosion left some 350 Argus recipients in the metaphorical dark about what to do if their implants failed. Skeleton staff seem to have rarely responded to queries from their customers, at least based on the experiences of Perk and Doerr. And some recipients have unfortunately returned to the actual dark as well, as reports have surfaced of Argus II failures due to aging or worn-down parts.
Product support for complex products is remarkably uneven. Although the iconic Ford Mustang ceased production in the late 1960s, its parts market is so robust that it’s theoretically possible to assemble a new vehicle from recently crafted components. Conversely, smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. Consumers have accepted both extremes.
But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Margaret McLean, a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California, notes companies like Second Sight have a greater obligation for product support than other consumer product ventures.
“In this particular case, you have a great deal of risk that is involved in using this device, the implant, and the after care of this device,” she says. “You cannot, like with your car, decide that ‘I don’t like my Mustang anymore,’ and go out and buy a Corvette.”
And, whether the Argus II implant works or not, its physical presence can impact critical medical decisions. Doerr’s doctor wanted him to undergo an MRI to assist in diagnosing attacks of vertigo. But the physician was concerned his implant might interfere. With the latest available manufacturer advisories on his implant nearly a decade old, the procedure was held up. Doerr spent months importuning Second Sight through phone calls, emails and Facebook postings to learn if his implant was contraindicated with MRIs, which he never received. Although the cause of his vertigo was found without an MRI, Doerr was hardly assured.
“Put that into context for a minute. I get into a serious car accident. I end up in the emergency room, and I have a tag saying I have an implanted medical device,” he says. “You can’t do an MRI until you get the proper information from the company. Who’s going to answer the phone?”
Second Sight’s management did answer the call to revamp its business. It netted nearly $78 million through a private stock placement and an initial public offering last year. At the end of 2021, Second Sight had nearly $70 million in cash on hand, according to a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
And while the Argus II is still touted at length on Second Sight’s home page, it appears little of its corporate coffers are earmarked toward its support. These days, the company is focused on obtaining federal approvals for Orion, a new implant that would go directly into the recipient’s brain and could be used to remedy blindness from a variety of causes. It obtained a $6.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in May 2021 to help develop Orion.
Presented with a list of written questions by email, Second Sight’s spokesperson, Dave Gentry of the investor relations firm Red Chip Companies, copied a subordinate with an abrupt message to “please handle.” That was the only response from a company representative. A call to Second Sight acting chief executive officer Scott Dunbar went unreturned.
Whether or not the Orion succeeds remains to be seen. The company’s SEC filings suggest a viable and FDA-approved device is years away, and that operational losses are expected for the “foreseeable future.” Second Sight reported zero revenue in 2020 or 2021.
Moreover, the experiences of the Argus II recipients could color the reception of future Second Sight products. Doerr notes that his insurer paid nearly $500,000 to implant his device and for training on how to use it.
“What’s the insurance industry going to say the next time this crops up?” Doerr asks, noting that the company’s reputation is “completely shot” with the recipients of its implants.
Perk, who made speeches to praise the Argus II and is still featured in a video on the Second Sight website, says he also no longer supports the company.
Jeroen Perk, an investigator for the Dutch customs service, cried for joy after partially regaining his sight, but he no longer trusts Second Sight, the company that provided his implant.
Nevertheless, Perk remains highly reliant on the technology. When he dropped an external component of his device in late 2020 and it broke, Perk briefly debated whether to remain blind or find a way to get his Argus II working again. Three months later, he was able to revive it by crowdsourcing parts, primarily from surgeons with spare components or other Argus II recipients who no longer use their devices. Perk now has several spare parts in reserve in case of future breakdowns.
Despite the frantic efforts to retain what little sight he has, Perk has no regrets about having the device implanted. And while he no longer trusts Second Sight, he is looking forward to possibly obtaining more advanced implants from companies in the Netherlands and Australia working on their own products.
Doerr suggests that biotech firms whose implants are distributed globally be bound to some sort of international treaty requiring them to service their products in perpetuity. Such treaties are still applied to the salvage rights for ships that sunk centuries ago, he notes.
“I think that in a global tech economy, that would be a good thing,” says McLean, the fellow at Santa Clara, “but I am not optimistic about it in the near term. Business incentives push toward return on share to stockholders, not to patients and other stakeholders. We likely need to rely on some combination of corporately responsibility…and [international] government regulation. It’s tough—the Paris Climate Accord implementation at a slow walk comes to mind.”
Unlike Perk, Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market. At 70, Doerr says he does not have the time or energy to hold the company more accountable. And with Second Sight having gone through a considerable corporate reorganization, Doerr believes a lawsuit to compel it to better serve its Argus recipients would be nothing but an extremely costly longshot.
“It’s corporate America at its best,” he observes.