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Pop-Up Testing Lab Shows Volunteer Spirit Against Deadly Pandemic

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Caption: Postdoc Jenny Hamilton volunteered to work on coronavirus testing at the Innovative Genomics Institute. Behind her is one of the lab’s liquid-handling systems, which robotically extracts RNA from patient samples before another machine can detect whether that RNA comes from the coronavirus. Credit: Max & Jules Photography.

On March 19, 2020, California became the first U. S. state to issue a stay-at-home order to halt the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The order shuttered research labs around the state, and thousands of scientists began sheltering at home and shifting their daily focus to writing papers and grants, analyzing data from past experiments, and catching up on their scientific reading.

That wasn’t the case for everyone. Some considered the order as presenting a perfect opportunity to volunteer, sometimes outside of their fields of expertise, to help their state and communities respond to the pandemic.

One of those willing to pitch in is Jennifer Doudna, University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) and executive director of the school’s Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI), a partnership with the University of California, San Francisco (UC San Francisco). She is also recognized as a pioneer in the development of the popular gene-editing technology called CRISPR.

Doudna, an NIH-supported structural biochemist with no experience in virology or clinical diagnostics, decided that she and her IGI colleagues could establish a pop-up testing lab at their facility. Their job: boost the SARS-CoV-2 testing capacity in her community.

It was a great idea, but a difficult one to execute. The first daunting step was acquiring Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) certification. This U. S. certification ensures that quality standards are met for laboratory testing of human blood, body fluid, and other specimens for medical purposes. CLIA certification is required not only to perform such testing in the IGI lab space, but for Doudna’s graduate students, postdocs, and volunteers to process patient samples.

Still, fate was on their side. Doudna and her team partnered with UC Berkeley’s University Health Services to extend the student health center’s existing CLIA certification to the IGI space. And because of the urgency of the pandemic, federal review of the extension request was expedited and granted in a few weeks.

The next challenge was technological. Doudna’s team had to make sure that its diagnostic system was as good or better than those of other SARS-CoV-2 testing platforms. With great care and attention to lab safety, the team began assembling two parallel workstreams: one a semi-manual method to get going right away and the other a faster, automated, robotic method to transition to when ready.

Soon, patient samples began arriving in the lab to be tested for the presence of genetic material (RNA) from SARS-CoV-2, an indication that a person is infected with the virus. The diagnostic system was also soon humming along, with Doudna’s automated workstream having the capacity to process 384 samples in parallel.

The pop-up lab—known formally as the IGI SARS-CoV-2 Diagnostic Testing Laboratory—is funded through philanthropy and staffed by more than 50 volunteers from IGI, UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco, and local data-management companies. Starting on April 6, the lab was fully operational, capable of running hundreds of tests daily with a 24-hour turnaround time for results. A positive test requires that at least two out of three SARS-CoV-2 genomic targets return a positive signal, and the method uses de-identified barcoded sample data to protect patient privacy.

Doudna intends to keep the pop-up lab open as long as her community needs it. So far, they’ve provided testing to UC Berkeley students and staff, first responders (including the entire Berkeley Fire Department), and several members of the city’s homeless population. She says that availability of samples will soon be the rate-limiting step in their sample-analysis pipeline and hopes continued partnerships with local health officials will enable them to work at full capacity to deliver thousands of test results rapidly.

Doudna says she’s been amazed by the team spirit of her lab members and other local colleagues who have come together around a crisis. They’ve gotten the job done by contributing their different skills and resources, including behind-the-scenes efforts by the university’s leadership and staff, philanthropists, city officials, and state government workers.

Although Doudna and her team intend to publish their work to help others follow suit [1], she says the experience has also provided her with many intangible rewards. It has highlighted the value of resilience and adaptation, as well as given her a newfound appreciation for the complexity and precision of operations in the commercial clinical labs that are a routine part of our medical care.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have thrust all of us into a time warp, in which weeks sometimes feel like months, there is much to do. The amount of work needed to tame this virus is significant and requires an all-hands-on-deck mentality, which NIH and the biomedical research community have embraced fully.

Doudna is not alone. Other labs around the country are engaged in similar efforts. At the NIH’s main campus in Bethesda, MD, staff at the clinical laboratory in the Clinical Center rapidly set up testing for SARS-CoV-2 RNA, and have now tested more than 1,000 NIH staff. Researchers at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard partnered with the city of Cambridge, MA, to pilot COVID-19 surveillance in homeless shelters and skilled nursing and assisted living facilities located there.

Hats off to everyone who goes the extra mile to get us through this tough time. I am so gratified when, guided by compassion and dogged determination of the human spirit, science leads the way and provides much needed hope for our future.


[1] Blueprint for a Pop-up SARS-CoV-2 Testing Lab. Innovative Genomics Institute SARS-CoV-2 Testing Consortium, Hockemeyer D, Fyodor U, Doudna JA. 2020. medRxiv. Preprint posted on April 12, 2020.


Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

CLIA Law & Regulations (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Innovative Genomic Institute (Berkeley, CA)

Doudna Lab (University of California, Berkeley)

Study Suggests Repurposed Drugs Might Treat Aggressive Lung Cancer

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Small cell lung cancer cells
Caption: Small cell lung cancer cells (red) spreading via blood vessels (white) from the lung to the liver of a genetically-engineered mouse model.
Credit: Leanne Li, Koch Institute at MIT

Despite continued progress in treatment and prevention, lung cancer remains our nation’s leading cause of cancer death. In fact, more Americans die of lung cancer each year than of breast, colon, and prostate cancers combined [1,2]. While cigarette smoking is a major cause, lung cancer also occurs in non-smokers. I’m pleased to report discovery of what we hope will be a much-needed drug target for a highly aggressive, difficult-to-treat form of the disease, called small cell lung cancer (SCLC).

Using gene-editing technology to conduct a systematic, large-scale search for druggable vulnerabilities in certain types of cancer cells grown in lab dishes, NIH-funded researchers recently identified a metabolic pathway that appears to play a key role in SCLC. What makes this news even more encouraging is drugs that block this pathway already exist. That includes one in clinical testing for other types of cancer, and another that’s FDA-approved and has been safely used for more than 20 years to treat people with rheumatoid arthritis.

The new work comes from the lab of Tyler Jacks, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge. The Jacks lab, which is dedicated to understanding the genetic events that lead to cancer, develops mouse models engineered to carry the same genetic mutations that turn up in human cancers.

In work described in Science Translational Medicine, the team, co-led by Leanne Li and Sheng Rong Ng, applied CRISPR gene-editing tools to cells grown from some of their mouse models. Aiming high in terms of scale, researchers used CRISPR to knock out systematically, one by one, each of about 5,000 genes in cells from the SCLC mouse model, as well in cells from mouse models of other types of lung and pancreatic cancers. They looked to see what gene knockouts would slow down or kill the cancer cells, because that would be a good indication that the protein products of these genes, or the pathways they mediated, would be potential drug targets.

Out of those thousands of genes, one rose to the top of the list. It encodes an enzyme called DHODH (dihydroorotate dehydrogenase). This enzyme plays an important role in synthesizing pyrimidine, which is a major building block in DNA and RNA. Cytosine and thymine, the C and T in the four-letter DNA code, are pyrimidines; so is uracil, the U in RNA that takes the place of T in DNA. Because cancer cells are constantly dividing, there is a continual need to synthesize new DNA and RNA molecules to support the production of new daughter cells. And that means, unlike healthy cells, cancer cells require a steady supply of pyrimidine.

It turns out that the SCLC cells have an unexpected weakness relative to other cancer cells: they don’t produce as much pyrimidine. As a result, the researchers found blocking DHODH left the cells short on pyrimidine, leading to reduced growth and survival of the cancer.

This was especially good news because DHODH-blocking drugs, including one called brequinar, have already been tested in clinical trials for other cancers. In fact, brequinar is now being explored as a potential treatment for acute myeloid leukemia.

Might brequinar also hold promise for treating SCLC? To explore further, the researchers looked again to their genetic mouse model of SCLC. Their studies showed that mice treated with brequinar lived about 40 days longer than control animals. That’s a significant survival benefit in this system.

Brequinar treatment appeared to work even better when combined with other approved cancer drugs in mice that had SCLC cells transplanted into them. Further study in mice carrying SCLC tumors derived from four human patients added to this evidence. Two of the four human tumors shrunk in mice treated with brequinar.

Of course, mice are not people. But the findings suggest that brequinar or another DHODH blocker might hold promise as a new way to treat SCLC. While more study is needed to understand even better how brequinar works and explore potentially promising drug combinations, the fact that this drug is already in human testing for another indication suggests that a clinical trial to explore its use for SCLC might happen more quickly.

More broadly, the new findings show the promise of gene-editing technology as a research tool for uncovering elusive cancer targets. Such hard-fought discoveries will help to advance precise approaches to the treatment of even the most aggressive cancer types. And that should come as encouraging news to all those who are hoping to find new answers for hard-to-treat cancers.


[1] Cancer Stat Facts: Lung and Bronchus Cancer (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

[2] Key Statistics for Lung Cancer (American Cancer Society)

[3] Identification of DHODH as a therapeutic target in small cell lung cancer. Li L, Ng SR, Colón CI, Drapkin BJ, Hsu PP, Li Z, Nabel CS, Lewis CA, Romero R, Mercer KL, Bhutkar A, Phat S, Myers DT, Muzumdar MD, Westcott PMK, Beytagh MC, Farago AF, Vander Heiden MG, Dyson NJ, Jacks T. Sci Transl Med. 2019 Nov 6;11(517).


Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment (NCI/NIH)

Video: Introduction to Genome Editing Using CRISPR Cas9 (NIH)

Tyler Jacks (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge)

NIH Support: National Cancer Institute

Gene-Editing Advance Puts More Gene-Based Cures Within Reach

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Prime Editing
Caption: The prime editing system (left) contains three parts: two enzymes, Cas9 and reverse transcriptase, and an engineered guide RNA, pegRNA. Unlike regular CRISPR gene editing, prime editing nicks just one strand of the DNA molecule (right) and then uses RNA and reverse transcriptase to direct highly targeted changes to a cell’s DNA. Credit: Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Cambridge, MA.

There’s been tremendous excitement recently about the potential of CRISPR and related gene-editing technologies for treating or even curing sickle cell disease (SCD), muscular dystrophy, HIV, and a wide range of other devastating conditions. Now comes word of another remarkable advance—called “prime editing”—that may bring us even closer to reaching that goal.

As groundbreaking as CRISPR/Cas9 has been for editing specific genes, the system has its limitations. The initial version is best suited for making a double-stranded break in DNA, followed by error-prone repair. The outcome is generally to knock out the target. That’s great if eliminating the target is the desired goal. But what if the goal is to fix a mutation by editing it back to the normal sequence?

The new prime editing system, which was described recently by NIH-funded researchers in the journal Nature, is revolutionary because it offers much greater control for making a wide range of precisely targeted edits to the DNA code, which consists of the four “letters” (actually chemical bases) A, C, G, and T [1].

Already, in tests involving human cells grown in the lab, the researchers have used prime editing to correct genetic mutations that cause two inherited diseases: SCD, a painful, life-threatening blood disorder, and Tay-Sachs disease, a fatal neurological disorder. What’s more, they say the versatility of their new gene-editing system means it can, in principle, correct about 89 percent of the more than 75,000 known genetic variants associated with human diseases.

In standard CRISPR, a scissor-like enzyme called Cas9 is used to cut all the way through both strands of the DNA molecule’s double helix. That usually results in the cell’s DNA repair apparatus inserting or deleting DNA letters at the site. As a result, CRISPR is extremely useful for disrupting genes and inserting or removing large DNA segments. However, it is difficult to use this system to make more subtle corrections to DNA, such as swapping a letter T for an A.

To expand the gene-editing toolbox, a research team led by David R. Liu, Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Cambridge, MA, previously developed a class of editing agents called base editors [2,3]. Instead of cutting DNA, base editors directly convert one DNA letter to another. However, base editing has limitations, too. It works well for correcting four of the most common single letter mutations in DNA. But at least so far, base editors haven’t been able to make eight other single letter changes, or fix extra or missing DNA letters.

In contrast, the new prime editing system can precisely and efficiently swap any single letter of DNA for any other, and can make both deletions and insertions, at least up to a certain size. The system consists of a modified version of the Cas9 enzyme fused with another enzyme, called reverse transcriptase, and a specially engineered guide RNA, called pegRNA. The latter contains the desired gene edit and steers the needed editing apparatus to a specific site in a cell’s DNA.

Once at the site, the Cas9 nicks one strand of the double helix. Then, reverse transcriptase uses one DNA strand to “prime,” or initiate, the letter-by-letter transfer of new genetic information encoded in the pegRNA into the nicked spot, much like the search-and-replace function of word processing software. The process is then wrapped up when the prime editing system prompts the cell to remake the other DNA strand to match the new genetic information.

So far, in tests involving human cells grown in a lab dish, Liu and his colleagues have used prime editing to correct the most common mutation that causes SCD, converting a T to an A. They were also able to remove four DNA letters to correct the most common mutation underlying Tay-Sachs disease, a devastating condition that typically produces symptoms in children within the first year and leads to death by age four. The researchers also used their new system to insert new DNA segments up to 44 letters long and to remove segments at least 80 letters long.

Prime editing does have certain limitations. For example, 11 percent of known disease-causing variants result from changes in the number of gene copies, and it’s unclear if prime editing can insert or remove DNA that’s the size of full-length genes—which may contain up to 2.4 million letters.

It’s also worth noting that now-standard CRISPR editing and base editors have been tested far more thoroughly than prime editing in many different kinds of cells and animal models. These earlier editing technologies also may be more efficient for some purposes, so they will likely continue to play unique and useful roles in biomedicine.

As for prime editing, additional research is needed before we can consider launching human clinical trials. Among the areas that must be explored are this technology’s safety and efficacy in a wide range of cell types, and its potential for precisely and safely editing genes in targeted tissues within living animals and people.

Meanwhile, building on all these bold advances, efforts are already underway to accelerate the development of affordable, accessible gene-based cures for SCD and HIV on a global scale. Just last month, NIH and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced a collaboration that will invest at least $200 million over the next four years toward this goal. Last week, I had the chance to present this plan and discuss it with global health experts at the Grand Challenges meeting Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The project is an unprecedented partnership designed to meet an unprecedented opportunity to address health conditions that once seemed out of reach but—as this new work helps to show—may now be within our grasp.


[1] Search-and-replace genome editing without double-strand breaks or donor DNA. Anzalone AV, Randolph PB, Davis JR, Sousa AA, Koblan LW, Levy JM, Chen PJ, Wilson C, Newby GA, Raguram A, Liu DR. Nature. Online 2019 October 21. [Epub ahead of print]

[2] Programmable editing of a target base in genomic DNA without double-stranded DNA cleavage. Komor AC, Kim YB, Packer MS, Zuris JA, Liu DR. Nature. 2016 May 19;533(7603):420-424.

[3] Programmable base editing of A•T to G•C in genomic DNA without DNA cleavage. Gaudelli NM, Komor AC, Rees HA, Packer MS, Badran AH, Bryson DI, Liu DR. Nature. 2017 Nov 23;551(7681):464-471.


Tay-Sachs Disease (Genetics Home Reference/National Library of Medicine/NIH)

Sickle Cell Disease (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute/NIH)

Cure Sickle Cell Initiative (NHLBI)

What are Genome Editing and CRISPR-Cas9? (National Library of Medicine/NIH)

Somatic Cell Genome Editing Program (Common Fund/NIH)

David R. Liu (Harvard, Cambridge, MA)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Human Genome Research Institute; National Institute for General Medical Sciences; National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering; National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences

Nano-Sized Solution for Efficient and Versatile CRISPR Gene Editing

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Nanocapsule for Gene Editing
Caption: Nanocapsule containing its gene-editing payload.
Credit: Guojun Chen and Amr Abdeen, University of Wisconsin-Madison

If used to make non-heritable genetic changes, CRISPR gene-editing technology holds tremendous promise for treating or curing a wide range of devastating disorders, including sickle cell disease, vision loss, and muscular dystrophy. Early efforts to deliver CRISPR-based therapies to affected tissues in a patient’s body typically have involved packing the gene-editing tools into viral vectors, which may cause unwanted immune reactions and other adverse effects.

Now, NIH-supported researchers have developed an alternative CRISPR delivery system: nanocapsules. Not only do these tiny, synthetic capsules appear to pose a lower risk of side effects, they can be precisely customized to deliver their gene-editing payloads to many different types of cells or tissues in the body, which can be extremely tough to do with a virus. Another advantage of these gene-editing nanocapsules is that they can be freeze-dried into a powder that’s easier than viral systems to transport, store, and administer at different doses.

In findings published in Nature Nanotechnology [1], researchers, led by Shaoqin Gong and Krishanu Saha, University of Wisconsin-Madison, developed the nanocapsules with specific design criteria in mind. They would need to be extremely small, about the size of a small virus, for easy entry into cells. Their surface would need to be adaptable for targeting different cell types. They also had to be highly stable in the bloodstream and yet easily degraded to release their contents once inside a cell.

After much hard work in the lab, they created their prototype. It features a thin polymer shell that’s easily decorated with peptides or other ingredients to target the nanocapsule to a predetermined cell type.

At just 25 nanometers in diameter, each nanocapsule still has room to carry cargo. That cargo includes a single CRISPR/Cas9 scissor-like enzyme for snipping DNA and a guide RNA that directs it to the right spot in the genome for editing.

In the bloodstream, the nanocapsules remain fully intact. But, once inside a cell, their polymer shells quickly disintegrate and release the gene-editing payload. How is this possible? The crosslinking molecules that hold the polymer together immediately degrade in the presence of another molecule, called glutathione, which is found at high levels inside cells.

The studies showed that human cells grown in the lab readily engulf and take the gene-editing nanocapsules into bubble-like endosomes. Their gene-editing contents are then released into the cytoplasm where they can begin making their way to a cell’s nucleus within a few hours.

Further study in lab dishes showed that nanocapsule delivery of CRISPR led to precise gene editing of up to about 80 percent of human cells with little sign of toxicity. The gene-editing nanocapsules also retained their potency even after they were freeze-dried and reconstituted.

But would the nanocapsules work in a living system? To find out, the researchers turned to mice, targeting their nanocapsules to skeletal muscle and tissue in the retina at the back of eye. Their studies showed that nanocapsules injected into muscle or the tight subretinal space led to efficient gene editing. In the eye, the nanocapsules worked especially well in editing retinal cells when they were decorated with a chemical ingredient known to bind an important retinal protein.  

Based on their initial results, the researchers anticipate that their delivery system could reach most cells and tissues for virtually any gene-editing application. In fact, they are now exploring the potential of their nanocapsules for editing genes within brain tissue.

I’m also pleased to note that Gong and Saha’s team is part of a nationwide consortium on genome editing supported by NIH’s recently launched Somatic Cell Genome Editing program. This program is dedicated to translating breakthroughs in gene editing into treatments for as many genetic diseases as possible. So, we can all look forward to many more advances like this one.


[1] A biodegradable nanocapsule delivers a Cas9 ribonucleoprotein complex for in vivo genome editing. Chen G, Abdeen AA, Wang Y, Shahi PK, Robertson S, Xie R, Suzuki M, Pattnaik BR, Saha K, Gong S. Nat Nanotechnol. 2019 Sep 9.


Somatic Cell Genome Editing (NIH)

Saha Lab (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

Shaoqin (Sarah) Gong (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

NIH Support: National Eye Institute; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; Common Fund

Teaming Magnetic Bacteria with Nanoparticles for Better Drug Delivery

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Nanoparticles hold great promise for delivering next-generation therapeutics, including those based on CRISPR gene editing tools. The challenge is how to guide these tiny particles through the bloodstream and into the right target tissues. Now, scientists are enlisting some surprising partners in this quest: magnetic bacteria!

First a bit of background. Discovered in the 1960s during studies of bog sediments, “magnetotactic” bacteria contain magnetic, iron-rich particles that enable them to orient themselves to the Earth’s magnetic fields. To explore the potential of these microbes for targeted delivery of nanoparticles, the NIH-funded researchers devised the ingenious system you see in this fluorescence microscopy video. This system features a model blood vessel filled with a liquid that contains both fluorescently-tagged nanoparticles (red) and large swarms of a type of magnetic bacteria called Magnetospirillum magneticum (not visible).

At the touch of a button that rotates external magnetic fields, researchers can wirelessly control the direction in which the bacteria move through the liquid—up, down, left, right, and even “freestyle.” And—get this—the flow created by the synchronized swimming of all these bacteria pushes along any nearby nanoparticles in the same direction, even without any physical contact between the two. In fact, the researchers have found that this bacteria-guided system delivers nanoparticles into target model tissues three times faster than a similar system lacking such bacteria.

How did anyone ever dream this up? Most previous attempts to get nanoparticle-based therapies into diseased tissues have relied on simple diffusion or molecular targeting methods. Because those approaches are not always ideal, NIH-funded researchers Sangeeta Bhatia, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, and Simone Schürle, formerly of MIT and now ETH Zurich, asked themselves: Could magnetic forces be used to propel nanoparticles through the bloodstream?

As a graduate student at ETH Zurich, Schürle had worked to develop and study tiny magnetic robots, each about the size of a cell. Those microbots, called artificial bacterial flagella (ABF), were designed to replicate the movements of bacteria, relying on miniature flagellum-like propellers to move them along in corkscrew-like fashion.

In a study published recently in Science Advances, the researchers found that the miniature robots worked as hoped in tests within a model blood vessel [1]. Using magnets to propel a single microbot, the researchers found that 200-nanometer-sized polystyrene balls penetrated twice as far into a model tissue as they did without the aid of the magnet-driven forces.

At the same time, others in the Bhatia lab were developing bacteria that could be used to deliver cancer-fighting drugs. Schürle and Bhatia wished they could direct those microbial swarms using magnets as they could with the microbots. That’s when they learned about the potential of M. magneticum and developed the experimental system demonstrated in the video above.

The researchers’ next step will be to test their magnetic approach to drug delivery in a mouse model. Ultimately, they think their innovative strategy holds promise for delivering nanoparticles carrying a wide range of therapeutic payloads right to a tumor, infection, or other diseased tissue. It’s yet another example of how basic research combined with outside-the-box thinking can lead to surprisingly creative solutions with real potential to improve human health.


[1] Synthetic and living micropropellers for convection-enhanced nanoparticle transport. Schürle S, Soleimany AP, Yeh T, Anand GM, Häberli M, Fleming HE, Mirkhani N, Qiu F, Hauert S, Wang X, Nelson BJ, Bhatia SN. Sci Adv. 2019 Apr 26;5(4):eaav4803.


VIDEO: Synthetic and Living Micropropellers Stir Up Nanoparticles for Enhanced Drug Transport Powered by Magnetism

Nanotechnology (NIH)

What are genome editing and CRISPR-Cas9? (National Library of Medicine/NIH)

Sangeeta Bhatia (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA)

Simone Schürle-Finke (ETH Zurich, Switzerland)

NIH Support: National Cancer Institute; National Institute of General Medical Sciences

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