When it isn’t involved in a messy patent appeal between MIT & UC Berkeley or being used to try and bring back Woolly mammoths, the Crispr gene editing software is being used to pioneer new depths in genetics. Except this time, it is the Crispr-Cas13a enzyme currently taking the biomedical field by storm. A team of scientists from several esteemed departments within MIT and Harvard have shown that they have been able to adapt Crispr to be used to manipulate RNA, rather than DNA.
This new diagnostic platform would enable Crispr to be used as a fast, versatile, inexpensive and sensitive tool within the health industry. The scientists were able to explain in a recently published study that using Crispr to manipulate RNA yielded incredible results, with it being described as being able to indicate the presence of as little as a single molecule of a target RNA or DNA.
Nicknamed SHERLOCK, for Specific High-sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter unlocking, it is hoped that it will revolutionize current public health and research capabilities. It is expected that it could eventually be used to respond to viral and bacterial outbreaks, monitor antibiotic resistance and detect cancer, but its’ list of accomplishments so far is already very impressive.
Scientists were able to show that this platform was able to detect the presence of viruses like Zika as well as distinguishing which particular strain it was within hours. It was also used to detect specific types of bacteria, identifying cancerous mutations and was even able to rapidly analyse human genetic information, per study co-author Jim Collins from MIT’s Medical Engineering and Science faculty:
“We can now effectively and readily make sensors for any nucleic acid, which is incredibly powerful when you think of diagnostics and research applications. This tool offers the sensitivity that could detect an extremely small amount of cancer DNA in a patient’s blood sample, for example, which would help researchers understand how cancer mutates over time. For public health, it could help researchers monitor the frequency of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in a population. The scientific possibilities get very exciting very quickly.”
Additionally, as a paper-based test, it can easily be transported and does not need refrigeration, making it an ideal tool for researchers or doctors responding to outbreaks or in rural clinics that lack advanced equipment. The versatility of this new Crispr enzyme is almost definitely going to modernize current medical and research capabilities to a level many had probably never expected.