CRISPR and the Coronavirus

A recent interview with Prof. Jennifer Doudna, a co-discoverer of the CRISPR-Cas9 system for genome editing, highlights potential applications of the technology to COVID-19

The CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic) genome editing system can be used to delete, insert, or alter any type of DNA/RNA, including that of humans, animals, plants, or microorganisms like bacteria. CRISPR is a highly versatile technique which has the potential to cure complex diseases at the genetic level efficiently.

In the interview with Amanpour and Company, Prof. Doudna discusses some of the recent efforts of her lab at UC Berkley. Together with more than 50 volunteer scientist and data management experts, she transformed part of UC Berkley's Innovative Genomics Institute into a testing facility for COVID-19. Prof. Doudna highlights the solidarity and collaboration of all parties involved:

"Many scientists, myself included […] really want to be contributing our expertise and we're not seeking to profit from it. We're working with university officials to see if we can put out […] a statement about how IP will be managed that comes out of this pandemic, [and] how discoveries can be made openly available".

Asked about the origins of CRISPR and its relation to virus fighting bacteria found naturally in organisms, Prof. Doudna said:

"CRISPR is an adapted immune system, it allows bacteria to detect viruses and protect themselves from future viruses […] a handful of scientists were studying [it and found] we could actually harness it as a technology for something quite different – that's genome editing. Reflecting on this during the pandemic, there's a fascinating parallel that bacteria have had to come up with creative ways to fight [viruses], and now here we are, humans, facing this challenge".

In the current coronavirus pandemic, CRISPR could be utilised in a number of ways. Employing CRISPR is possible as part of diagnostic tests:

"enzymes can interact with nucleic acid, which is RNA or DNA, when they do that they turn on an activity […] that allows a big amplification of the signal".

These could, according to Prof. Doudna, be engineered to be carried out as part of at-home testing kits – not dissimilar to a pregnancy test. The benefit of this, aside from taking pressure off healthcare systems, is understanding who is infected and how to keep others safe.

Future applications of CRISPR could see the technology used to fight viruses directly. The lab of Dr. Stanley Qi, a colleague of Prof. Doudna at UC Berkley, has recently been looking at the possibility to develop a prophylactic response to corona and influenza viruses. This technique, based on the CRISPR-Cas9 system, is called PAC-MAN (Prophylactic Antiviral CRISPR in huMAN cells).

Prof. Doudna describes this as a clever approach, which could utilise CRISPR against the coronavirus to:

"literally go after […] only the viral RNA, and not RNAs that are present in normal cells".

However this approach is not immediately useful against the coronavirus. Although the technology shows promising results in lab settings, it is necessary to spend more time to achieve a stable delivery method which can appropriately access affected cells in lungs. Read here our blog on how soon we can respond to the coronavirus.

As an increasingly vital part of the biotechnology toolkit in medicine, the versatility of CRISPR continues to be promising. Such innovation and collaboration put the biotechnology industry at the forefront of providing solutions to the novel problems life throws our way!