The discovery of novel virus strains like SARS-CoV-2 has had researchers looking for new ways to combat deadly infections like COVID-19 for a number of years. One possibility is a tool the scientists have been using in that fight — CRISPR gene editing.
What is CRISPR?
CRISPR is a powerful technique for genome editing, allowing researchers to change DNA sequences and alter gene activity efficiently. It has several potential uses, including repairing genetic abnormalities, treating and limiting disease transmission, and enhancing agricultural growth and resilience.
CRISPR is an acronym for clustered, regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. It defines a family of DNA sequences in bacteria and other prokaryotic enzymes. With CRISPR technology, scientists can use an enzyme like a pair of scissors. This gene-editing enables the addition, removal, or modification of genetic material at specific sites in the genome.
Scientists Use CRISPR Technology in the Fight Against COVID
CRISPR gene editing technology was successfully employed to generate quick diagnostic tests for COVID-19, resulting in its first US FDA (MD, USA) clearance. Even though PCR testing is the gold standard for diagnosing COVID, the test results take time.
CRISPR has a nucleotide-targeting ability that allows it to detect the presence of viral RNA, giving a COVID-19 diagnosis much faster. Rapid testing is a critical factor in the US’s COVID response and the control of the spread of the virus.
A critical analysis done by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found that the CRISPR test provides 100 percent accuracy in sensitivity and specificity, and it takes just an hour to get results. Using CRISPR technology for COVID testing also helps resolve some supply chain issues associated with PCR tests.
CRISPR Gene Editing As a COVID Cure?
In a word: yes. Just recently, researchers discovered a way to stop the virus from replicating using CRISPR technology. A 2021 study published in Nature Communications indicates that a key CRISPR enzyme (CRISPR-Cas13b) can bind to the RNA of the virus and stop replication.
Now that rapid tests are available and a percentage of the population is vaccinated, the focus in COVID shifts to treatment and prevention. At the start of the epidemic, the scientists used CRISPR technology to limit replication of the RNA virus SARS-CoV-2 — and, significantly, its “variants of concern” — in a test tube model.
The hope is that the flexibility of the CRISPR-Cas13b enzyme will allow for the rapid design of antivirals that can treat COVID-19, its variances, and any other emerging novel viruses. Scientists are looking past COVID too. They see a future for treatments of influenza, Ebola, and even HIV using CRISPR technology.
This is good news because evolution-driven viral mutations may threaten the efficacy of the current vaccines. Eventually, someone who tests positive for the virus will immediately take CRISPR-Cas13 to stop replication. That would naturally reduce the transmission of the virus, as well.
The team is presently working on animal models and hopes to have the medication accessible for clinical use within two years. Such a strategy might be excellent news for vulnerable communities, such as Africa, that have suffered from insufficient access to pandemic immunization.