Testing for Any Infectious Disease Could Soon Be As Simple As Peeing On a Stick
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.
Scientists redesign bacteria to tackle the antibiotic resistance crisis
In 1945, almost two decades after Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, he warned that as antibiotics use grows, they may lose their efficiency. He was prescient—the first case of penicillin resistance was reported two years later. Back then, not many people paid attention to Fleming’s warning. After all, the “golden era” of the antibiotics age had just began. By the 1950s, three new antibiotics derived from soil bacteria — streptomycin, chloramphenicol, and tetracycline — could cure infectious diseases like tuberculosis, cholera, meningitis and typhoid fever, among others.
Today, these antibiotics and many of their successors developed through the 1980s are gradually losing their effectiveness. The extensive overuse and misuse of antibiotics led to the rise of drug resistance. The livestock sector buys around 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. every year. Farmers feed cows and chickens low doses of antibiotics to prevent infections and fatten up the animals, which eventually causes resistant bacterial strains to evolve. If manure from cattle is used on fields, the soil and vegetables can get contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Another major factor is doctors overprescribing antibiotics to humans, particularly in low-income countries. Between 2000 to 2018, the global rates of human antibiotic consumption shot up by 46 percent.
In recent years, researchers have been exploring a promising avenue: the use of synthetic biology to engineer new bacteria that may work better than antibiotics. The need continues to grow, as a Lancetstudy linked antibiotic resistance to over 1.27 million deaths worldwide in 2019, surpassing HIV/AIDS and malaria. The western sub-Saharan Africa region had the highest death rate (27.3 people per 100,000).
Researchers warn that if nothing changes, by 2050, antibiotic resistance could kill 10 million people annually.
To make it worse, our remedy pipelines are drying up. Out of the 18 biggest pharmaceutical companies, 15 abandoned antibiotic development by 2013. According to the AMR Action Fund, venture capital has remained indifferent towards biotech start-ups developing new antibiotics. In 2019, at least two antibiotic start-ups filed for bankruptcy. As of December 2020, there were 43 new antibiotics in clinical development. But because they are based on previously known molecules, scientists say they are inadequate for treating multidrug-resistant bacteria. Researchers warn that if nothing changes, by 2050, antibiotic resistance could kill 10 million people annually.
The rise of synthetic biology
To circumvent this dire future, scientists have been working on alternative solutions using synthetic biology tools, meaning genetically modifying good bacteria to fight the bad ones.
From the time life evolved on earth around 3.8 billion years ago, bacteria have engaged in biological warfare. They constantly strategize new methods to combat each other by synthesizing toxic proteins that kill competition.
For example, Escherichia coli produces bacteriocins or toxins to kill other strains of E.coli that attempt to colonize the same habitat. Microbes like E.coli (which are not all pathogenic) are also naturally present in the human microbiome. The human microbiome harbors up to 100 trillion symbiotic microbial cells. The majority of them are beneficial organisms residing in the gut at different compositions.
The chemicals that these “good bacteria” produce do not pose any health risks to us, but can be toxic to other bacteria, particularly to human pathogens. For the last three decades, scientists have been manipulating bacteria’s biological warfare tactics to our collective advantage.
In the late 1990s, researchers drew inspiration from electrical and computing engineering principles that involve constructing digital circuits to control devices. In certain ways, every cell in living organisms works like a tiny computer. The cell receives messages in the form of biochemical molecules that cling on to its surface. Those messages get processed within the cells through a series of complex molecular interactions.
Synthetic biologists can harness these living cells’ information processing skills and use them to construct genetic circuits that perform specific instructions—for example, secrete a toxin that kills pathogenic bacteria. “Any synthetic genetic circuit is merely a piece of information that hangs around in the bacteria’s cytoplasm,” explains José Rubén Morones-Ramírez, a professor at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León, Mexico. Then the ribosome, which synthesizes proteins in the cell, processes that new information, making the compounds scientists want bacteria to make. “The genetic circuit remains separated from the living cell’s DNA,” Morones-Ramírez explains. When the engineered bacteria replicates, the genetic circuit doesn’t become part of its genome.
Highly intelligent by bacterial standards, some multidrug resistant V. cholerae strains can also “collaborate” with other intestinal bacterial species to gain advantage and take hold of the gut.
In 2000, Boston-based researchers constructed an E.coli with a genetic switch that toggled between turning genes on and off two. Later, they built some safety checks into their bacteria. “To prevent unintentional or deleterious consequences, in 2009, we built a safety switch in the engineered bacteria’s genetic circuit that gets triggered after it gets exposed to a pathogen," says James Collins, a professor of biological engineering at MIT and faculty member at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute. “After getting rid of the pathogen, the engineered bacteria is designed to switch off and leave the patient's body.”
Overuse and misuse of antibiotics causes resistant strains to evolve
Seek and destroy
As the field of synthetic biology developed, scientists began using engineered bacteria to tackle superbugs. They first focused on Vibrio cholerae, whichin the 19th and 20th century caused cholera pandemics in India, China, the Middle East, Europe, and Americas. Like many other bacteria, V. cholerae communicate with each other via quorum sensing, a process in which the microorganisms release different signaling molecules, to convey messages to its brethren. Highly intelligent by bacterial standards, some multidrug resistant V. choleraestrains can also “collaborate” with other intestinal bacterial species to gain advantage and take hold of the gut. When untreated, cholera has a mortality rate of 25 to 50 percent and outbreaks frequently occur in developing countries, especially during floods and droughts.
Sometimes, however, V. cholerae makes mistakes. In 2008, researchers at Cornell University observed that when quorum sensing V. cholerae accidentally released high concentrations of a signaling molecule called CAI-1, it had a counterproductive effect—the pathogen couldn’t colonize the gut.
So the group, led byJohn March, professor of biological and environmental engineering, developed a novel strategy to combat V. cholerae. They genetically engineered E.coli toeavesdrop on V. cholerae communication networks and equipped it with the ability to release the CAI-1 molecules. That interfered with V. cholerae progress.Two years later, the Cornell team showed that V. cholerae-infected mice treated with engineered E.coli had a 92 percent survival rate.
These findings inspired researchers to sic the good bacteria present in foods like yogurt and kimchi onto the drug-resistant ones.
Three years later in 2011, Singapore-based scientists engineered E.coli to detect and destroy Pseudomonas aeruginosa, an oftendrug-resistant pathogen that causes pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and sepsis. Once the genetically engineered E.coli found its target through its quorum sensing molecules, it then released a peptide, that could eradicate 99 percent of P. aeruginosa cells in a test-tube experiment. The team outlined their work in a Molecular Systems Biology study.
“At the time, we knew that we were entering new, uncharted territory,” says lead author Matthew Chang, an associate professor and synthetic biologist at the National University of Singapore and lead author of the study. “To date, we are still in the process of trying to understand how long these microbes stay in our bodies and how they might continue to evolve.”
More teams followed the same path. In a 2013 study, MIT researchers also genetically engineered E.coli to detect P. aeruginosa via the pathogen’s quorum-sensing molecules. It then destroyed the pathogen by secreting a lab-made toxin.
Probiotics that fight
A year later in 2014, a Nature study found that the abundance of Ruminococcus obeum, a probiotic bacteria naturally occurring in the human microbiome, interrupts and reduces V.cholerae’s colonization— by detecting the pathogen’s quorum sensing molecules. The natural accumulation of R. obeumin Bangladeshi adults helped them recover from cholera despite living in an area with frequent outbreaks.
The findings from 2008 to 2014 inspired Collins and his team to delve into how good bacteria present in foods like yogurt and kimchi can attack drug-resistant bacteria. In 2018, Collins and his team developed the engineered probiotic strategy. They tweaked a commonly found bacteria in yogurt called Lactococcus lactis.
Engineered bacteria can be trained to target pathogens when they are at their most vulnerable metabolic stage in the human gut. --José Rubén Morones-Ramírez.
More scientists followed with more experiments. So far, researchers have engineered various probiotic organisms to fight pathogenic bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus (leading cause of skin, tissue, bone, joint and blood infections) and Clostridium perfringens (which causes watery diarrhea) in test-tube and animal experiments. In 2020, Russian scientists engineered a probiotic called Pichia pastoris to produce an enzyme called lysostaphin that eradicated S. aureus in vitro. Another 2020 study from China used an engineered probiotic bacteria Lactobacilli casei as a vaccine to prevent C. perfringens infection in rabbits.
In a study last year, Ramírez’s group at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León, engineered E. coli to detect quorum-sensing molecules from Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA, a notorious superbug. The E. coli then releases a bacteriocin that kills MRSA. “An antibiotic is just a molecule that is not intelligent,” says Ramírez. “On the other hand, engineered bacteria can be trained to target pathogens when they are at their most vulnerable metabolic stage in the human gut.”
Collins and Timothy Lu, an associate professor of biological engineering at MIT, found that engineered E. coli can help treat other conditions—such as phenylketonuria, a rare metabolic disorder, that causes the build-up of an amino acid phenylalanine. Their start-up Synlogic aims to commercialize the technology, and has completed a phase 2 clinical trial.
Circumventing the challenges
The bacteria-engineering technique is not without pitfalls. One major challenge is that beneficial gut bacteria produce their own quorum-sensing molecules that can be similar to those that pathogens secrete. If an engineered bacteria’s biosensor is not specific enough, it will be ineffective.
Another concern is whether engineered bacteria might mutate after entering the gut. “As with any technology, there are risks where bad actors could have the capability to engineer a microbe to act quite nastily,” says Collins of MIT. But Collins and Ramírez both insist that the chances of the engineered bacteria mutating on its own are virtually non-existent. “It is extremely unlikely for the engineered bacteria to mutate,” Ramírez says. “Coaxing a living cell to do anything on command is immensely challenging. Usually, the greater risk is that the engineered bacteria entirely lose its functionality.”
However, the biggest challenge is bringing the curative bacteria to consumers. Pharmaceutical companies aren’t interested in antibiotics or their alternatives because it’s less profitable than developing new medicines for non-infectious diseases. Unlike the more chronic conditions like diabetes or cancer that require long-term medications, infectious diseases are usually treated much quicker. Running clinical trials are expensive and antibiotic-alternatives aren’t lucrative enough.
“Unfortunately, new medications for antibiotic resistant infections have been pushed to the bottom of the field,” says Lu of MIT. “It's not because the technology does not work. This is more of a market issue. Because clinical trials cost hundreds of millions of dollars, the only solution is that governments will need to fund them.” Lu stresses that societies must lobby to change how the modern healthcare industry works. “The whole world needs better treatments for antibiotic resistance.”
Meet Dr. Renee Wegrzyn, the first Director of President Biden's new health agency, ARPA-H
In today’s podcast episode, I talk with Renee Wegrzyn, appointed by President Biden as the first director of a health agency created last year, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H. It’s inspired by DARPA, the agency that develops innovations for the Defense department and has been credited with hatching world-changing technologies such as ARPANET, which became the internet.
Time will tell if ARPA-H will lead to similar achievements in the realm of health. That’s what President Biden and Congress expect in return for funding ARPA-H at 2.5 billion dollars over three years.
Listen on Apple | Listen on Spotify | Listen on Stitcher | Listen on Amazon | Listen on Google
How will the agency figure out which projects to take on, especially with so many patient advocates for different diseases demanding moonshot funding for rapid progress?
I talked with Dr. Wegrzyn about the opportunities and challenges, what lessons ARPA-H is borrowing from Operation Warp Speed, how she decided on the first ARPA-H project that was announced recently, why a separate agency was needed instead of reforming HHS and the National Institutes of Health to be better at innovation, and how ARPA-H will make progress on disease prevention in addition to treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes, among many other health priorities.
Dr. Wegrzyn’s resume leaves no doubt of her suitability for this role. She was a program manager at DARPA where she focused on applying gene editing and synthetic biology to the goal of improving biosecurity. For her work there, she received the Superior Public Service Medal and, in case that wasn’t enough ARPA experience, she also worked at another ARPA that leads advanced projects in intelligence, called I-ARPA. Before that, she ran technical teams in the private sector working on gene therapies and disease diagnostics, among other areas. She has been a vice president of business development at Gingko Bioworks and headed innovation at Concentric by Gingko. Her training and education includes a PhD and undergraduate degree in applied biology from the Georgia Institute of Technology and she did her postdoc as an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow in Heidelberg, Germany.
Dr. Wegrzyn told me that she’s “in the hot seat.” The pressure is on for ARPA-H especially after the need and potential for health innovation was spot lit by the pandemic and the unprecedented speed of vaccine development. We'll soon find out if ARPA-H can produce gamechangers in health that are equivalent to DARPA’s creation of the internet.
ARPA-H - https://arpa-h.gov/
Dr. Wegrzyn profile - https://arpa-h.gov/people/renee-wegrzyn/
Dr. Wegrzyn Twitter - https://twitter.com/rwegrzyn?lang=en
President Biden Announces Dr. Wegrzyn's appointment - https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statement...
Leaps.org coverage of ARPA-H - https://leaps.org/arpa/
ARPA-H program for joints to heal themselves - https://arpa-h.gov/news/nitro/ -
ARPA-H virtual talent search - https://arpa-h.gov/news/aco-talent-search/
Dr. Renee Wegrzyn was appointed director of ARPA-H last October.
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.