Whether you’re aware of its existence or not, ‘Crispr’ (Crispr-Cas9) is a technology that is poised to take the worlds of biomedical and biochemical science by storm. The winners of The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2020 “for the development of a method for genome editing”, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna were lauded for their discovery of a ‘genetic scissors’, that makes the process of editing genes far more precise.
What is it?
Described as a ‘genetic scissors’ and discovered by chance during a study of the Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria, a part of that bacteria’s own immune system was found to ‘cleave’ viral DNA it recognised in order to protect itself. After Charpentier’s initial discovery, she then worked with Doudna in order to replicate these ‘scissors’ in a test tube, but the real eureka moment came when they realised their discovery could be reprogrammed to cut any DNA molecule at any precise point.
What can it be used for?
Human trials of Crispr therapies are already underway, and even the technology’s discoverers are shocked by the pace of development.
Speaking to The Guardian, Doudna said: ‘The speed at which Crispr research has progressed has been truly astonishing’. Trials of cancer treatments are ongoing, but the specific hope for Crispr is its ability to address inherited, genetic conditions such as cystic fibrosis, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes.
How does it work?
While gene editing itself is not new, doing so with great precision and therefore safety is the innovation that Crispr represents. The Cas9 enzyme discovered originally in the Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria can be programmed to transport a piece of RNA (genetic material similar to DNA) with the same sequence as the site to be targeted.
When this enzyme finds the matching DNA sequence for its RNA instructions, it snips the DNA at this site. Other enzymes can then be used to insert the desired material at this precision-targeted DNA site.
What does it mean for humanity?
As of right now, the potential utility of Crispr is very great but has yet to be realised. Human trials are ongoing and accelerating, so it should very much be a matter of watch this space. Bearing in mind the unknown nature of this technology, it may be better to exercise caution than to run with these scissors.