New Test Uses Gene Editing Technology CRISPR to Detect Disease

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CRISPR: It’s not just for making weird animals anymore. Scientists have used the genetic technology called CRISPR-Cas9 to create a super-sensitive, fast, and cheap diagnostic process for a range of diseases. They published their results in the journal Science.

Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats—that is, CRISPR—are little chunks of DNA that include repetitive sequences of base pairs.

Thomas Splettstoesser via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

In recent years, scientists have begun exploiting the sequences’ repetitive structure and role in the immune system to edit genomes. This controversial technology, called CRISPR-Cas, has already been used to breed hornless cows, malaria-resistant mosquitoes, and tiny pigs.

But CRISPR has potential that reaches far beyond minuscule barnyard animals. Some researchers realized that the technology’s versatile nature could be used to seek out specific genetic information like abnormal RNA. They converted CRISPR-Cas into a system they call SHERLOCK (Specific High Sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter UnLOCKing), which can be customized to hunt down the RNA of invaders like dengue fever, Zika virus, or the kind of mutations that can cause cancer.

Surprisingly, SHERLOCK testing is relatively cheap and could cost as little as $0.61 per urine, blood, or saliva sample. The diagnostics only require a few days to run, which could be hugely important in areas of Zika or dengue outbreak, where time is of the essence.

“It’s a different way of using CRISPR, not for editing the genome,” corresponding author Feng Zhang of MIT said, “but to detect and diagnose biological material. I think SHERLOCK provides a inexpensive [sic], easy to use, and sensitive diagnostic method for nucleic acid material.”