In January, we tipped CRISPR for big things in 2017, and it’s certainly not disappointing us. Here, we share our round-up of some of the amazing work which is going on using this innovative genome editing tool:
CRISPR is a pretty big deal in the science community right now, and researchers across the world are experimenting with applications for this fast, cheap and accurate gene editing technique, which is allowing scientists to edit and rewrite DNA sequences more accurately than ever before, and with less risk of genetic mutations than gene manipulation.
When found in a living organism, CRISPR is an unusual section of DNA which provides protection from new and dangerous viruses. The viruses attack the organism’s DNA directly, but this leaves them vulnerable to CRISPR sequences, which capture key strands of the virus’ DNA to learn how to defend against it and recognise it in the future.
The CRISPR messages about the viral enemy and how to shut it down are picked up by enzymes – namely Cas9 – which are given instructions about the virus’ DNA so they can bind to it and slice it at its weakest point to stop it, enabling the organism to successfully defend itself.
Trials for a revolutionary cancer treatment
The way that CRISPR defends against viruses means it has the potential to be used in treatments for a range of medical conditions with a genetic component, such as cancer or hepatitis B. In China, scientists are attempting to use CRISPR to cut faulty DNA out of the cells of lung cancer patients who have failed to respond to all other conventional cancer treatments, and are essentially out of options.
The way it works is reasonably straightforward. The CRISPR gene editing system is made up of two key molecules that introduce a change into DNA; the Cas9 enzyme (which acts as a pair of scissors to cut the strands of DNA at a specific location in the genome so DNA can be added or removed) and a piece of RNA (a nucleic acid similar to DNA, which contains a pre-designed sequence that acts as a map to tell the Cas9 where to cut the genome).
So the Chinese scientists are extracting T-cells from patients’ blood and using CRISPR to delete the gene that produces a protein (PD-1), which stops the T-cells from targeting and killing the cancer cells. These modified T-cells are then multiplied in the lab before being injected back into the patient to boost their immune system. In theory, this method will help patients to naturally cure themselves of cancer, so the results of this trial are being closely watched by the science community.
Chinese scientists have already created the world’s first monkeys born with customised mutations, thanks to CRISPR in 2014, making significant inroads towards understanding how gene editing applications for humans might work in practice.
Enter the DragonflEYE
But it’s not just medical fields where CRISPR is reaping praise. CRISPR was recently used to create a genetically modified dragonfly-cum-drone which could have big implications for intelligence and security gathering techniques. The live, controllable, genetically engineered insect is the first ever half-animal, half machine.
In order for the dragonfly to fly, it has been equipped with tiny solar powered cells on its back and is therefore not the one in control. As well as the solar cells and small data gathering equipment, the dragonfly has been altered internally, all through developed software that controls the hardware. In the future, this technology could be used to help disabled people regain control of their limbs.
Of course, many of the CRISPR projects grabbing the headlines are those a little more unusual in nature. For example, the glow in the dark rabbits created by adding jellyfish DNA into a mother rabbit’s embryos, the scientist looking to edit Asian elephant cell lines to give them woolly mammoth genes or the researchers hypothesising about whether CRISPR can make dragons.
As methods used for CRISPR are refined and the technology advances, there will be many more research success stories and bold new applications coming to the fore, and we could be a matter of years away from big medical breakthroughs in the way we treat and prevent diseases. Undoubtedly the key will lie in achieving more targeted gene editing, as there remains a margin of error with CRISPR and its guide RNA. Crack that and the possibilities for CRISPR could be limitless.
If you are interested in the CRISPR revolution, talk to us about current and upcoming vacancies in this exciting field.