CRISPR Gets A New Skill: Diagnosing Disease
CRISPR is everywhere. There’s so much work being done with this revolutionary gene-editing tool that it warrants its own journal. And researchers are still finding new uses for it, further solidifying its role as the Swiss army knife of biotechnologies.
CRISPR, as you may know, was pioneered by NYSCF — Robertson Stem Cell Investigator Feng Zhang, PhD, of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Recently, his team unveiled CRISPR’s new talent: acting as a diagnostic tool.
The researchers call their invention SHERLOCK (short for “Specific High Sensitivity Reporter unLOCKing”). It uses a cocktail of a few different CRISPR enzymes to detect genetic signatures of certain diseases. First, an enzyme called Cas13 finds and cuts an RNA sequence of interest (the target RNA), and when it does, it also cuts a bunch of RNA around the target. If it cuts a certain section of RNA around the target called the “reporter”, then the reporter gives off a signal, and we know that the original target RNA that Cas13 was looking for is present.
In practice, all you do to perform the test is take a strip of special paper, dip it into a sample containing this new CRISPR system, and see if a line appears. If it does, then the sample contains the genetic sequence (or disease) of interest.
This tool has huge promise for detecting diseases like Zika, Ebola, or the flu during an outbreak. It can also identify the presence of more than one disease at a time and detect mutations that might make someone resistant to certain drug treatments. Other advantages? The test is fast, accurate, and inexpensive.
SHERLOCK isn’t the only new CRISPR invention to surface recently. Researchers from Harvard and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute have developed a tool (called “CAMERA”) that uses CRISPR to tell us what cellular processes a cell has undergone in the past. This will help scientists study cellular development and look at what happens when it goes wrong (such as in cancer). In addition, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley have used CRISPR to create “DETECTR”, a tool that can detect the presence of viruses as well as types of DNA specific to certain tumors or mutations.