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.
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.