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Discussing the Long Arc of Discovery with NIH’s Newest Nobelist

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Discussion with Dr. Harvey Alter

It’s been a tough year for our whole world because of everything that’s happening as a result of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Yet there are bright spots that still shine through, and this week brought some fantastic news about NIH-supported researchers being named 2020 Nobel Prize Laureates for their pioneering work in two important fields: Chemistry and Physiology or Medicine.

In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, NIH grantee Jennifer A. Doudna, a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley, got word that she and Emmanuelle Charpentier, a microbiologist at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology, Berlin, Germany, had won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing the CRISPR/cas approach to genome editing. Doudna has received continuous NIH funding since 1997, mainly from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and National Human Genome Research Institute.

The CRISPR/cas system, which consists of a short segment of RNA attached to the cas enzyme, provides the ability to make very precise changes in the sequence, or spelling, of the genetic instruction books of humans and other species. If used to make non-heritable edits in relevant tissues, such technology holds enormous potential to treat or even cure a wide range of devastating diseases, including thousands of genetic disorders where the DNA misspelling is precisely known.

Just two days before Doudna learned of her big award, a scientist who’s spent almost his entire career at the NIH campus in Bethesda, MD, received news that he too was getting a Nobel—the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Harvey Alter, a senior scholar in the NIH Clinical Center’s Transfusion Medicine Department, was recognized for his contributions in identifying the potentially deadly hepatitis C virus. He shares this year’s prize with Michael Houghton, now with University of Alberta, Edmonton, and Charles M. Rice, The Rockefeller University, New York, who’s received continuous NIH funding since 1987, mainly from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

In a long arc of discovery rooted in basic, translational, and clinical research that spanned several decades, Alter and his colleagues doggedly pursued biological clues that at first led to tests, then life-saving treatments, and, today, the very real hope of eradicating the global health threat posed by hepatitis C infections.

We at NIH are particularly proud of the fact that Alter is the sixth Nobel Prize winner—and the first in 26 years—to have done the entirety of his award-winning research in our Intramural Research Program. So, I jumped at the opportunity to talk with Harvey on NIH’s Facebook Live and Twitter chats just hours after he got the good news on Monday. Here’s a condensed version of our conversation, which took place on the NIH campus, but at a safe physical distance to minimize the risk of COVID-19 spread.

Collins: Harvey, let me start off by asking, how did you find out you’d won the Nobel Prize?

Alter: At 4:15 this morning. I was asleep and heard the telephone ringing. I ignored it. Five minutes later, I got another call. Now, I’m getting kind of perturbed. But I ignored it, thinking the call must be some kind of solicitation. Then, the phone rang a third time. I answered it, prepared to tell the person on the other end not to call me anymore. I heard a man’s voice say, “I’m the Secretary General of the Nobel Prize, calling you from Stockholm.” At that point, I just froze.

Collins: Did you think it might be a hoax?

Alter: No, I didn’t think it was a hoax. But I wasn’t expecting to win the prize. I knew about three years ago that I’d been on a Nobel list. But it didn’t happen, and I just forgot about it. Truthfully, I didn’t know that today was the day that the announcement was being made. The news came as a complete shock.

Collins: Please say a few words about viral hepatitis. What is it?

Alter: Sure. Viral hepatitis is an infection of the liver that causes inflammation and can lead to scarring, or cirrhosis. Early in my career, two viruses were known to cause the disease. One was the hepatitis A virus. You got it from consuming contaminated water or food. The second was the hepatitis B virus, which has a blood-borne transmission, typically from blood transfusions. In the 1970s, we realized that some other agent was causing most of the hepatitis from blood transfusions. Since it wasn’t A and it wasn’t B, we cleverly decided to call it: non-A, non-B. We did that because we hadn’t yet proven that the causative agent was a virus.

Collins: So, even though you screened donor units for the hepatitis B virus to eliminate tainted blood, people were still getting hepatitis from blood transfusions. How did you go about trying to solve this mystery?

Alter: The main thing was to follow patients prospectively, meaning forward in time. We drew a blood sample before they were transfused, and then serially afterwards. We saved those samples and also the donor samples to compare them. Using a liver function test, we found that 30 percent of patients who had open heart surgery at NIH prior to 1970 developed liver abnormalities indicative of hepatitis. That’s 1 in 3 people.

We then looked for the reasons. We found the main one was our source of blood. We were buying blood, which was then in short supply, from commercial laboratories. It turned out that their paid donors were engaging in high-risk behaviors [Note: like IV drug users sharing hypodermic needles]. We immediately stopped using these laboratories, and, through various other measures, we got the rate down to around 4 percent in 1987.

That’s when Michael Houghton, then at Chiron Corp. and a co-recipient of this year’s prize, cloned the virus. Think about it, he and his colleagues looked at 6 million clones and found just one that reacted with the convalescent serum of a patient with non-A, non-B. In other words, having contracted the virus, the patient already made antibodies against it that were present in the serum. If that one clone came from the virus, the antibodies in the serum would recognize it. They did, and Chiron then developed an assay to detect antibodies to the virus.

Collins: And that’s when they contacted you.

Alter: Yes, they wanted to use our panel of patient blood samples that had fooled a lot of people who claimed to have developed a non-A, non-B assay. Nobody else had “broken” this panel, but the Chiron Corp. did. We found that every case of non-A, non-B was really hepatitis C, the agent that they had cloned. Hepatitis C was the missing piece. As far as we could tell, there were no other agents beside hepatitis B and C that would result in transfusion transmission of the disease.

Collins: This story is clearly one of persistence. So, say something about persistence as an important characteristic of a scientist. You’re a great example of someone who was always looking out for opportunities that might not have seemed so promising at first.

Alter: I first learned persistence from Dr. Baruch Blumberg, my first NIH mentor who discovered the hepatitis B virus in 1967. [Note: Other NIH researchers identified the hepatitis A virus in 1977] The discovery started when we found this “Australian antigen,” a molecular structure that the immune system recognizes as foreign and attacks. It was a serendipitous finding that could have been easily just dropped. But he just kept at it, kept at it, kept at it. He had this famous wall where he diagrammed his hypotheses with all the contingencies if one worked or failed. Then, all of a sudden, the antigen was associated with hepatitis B. It became the basis of the hepatitis B vaccine, which is highly effective and used throughout the world. Dr. Blumberg won the Nobel Prize for his work on the hepatitis B virus in 1976.

Collins: Sometimes people look at NIH and ask why we don’t focus all of our efforts on curing a particular disease. I keep answering, ‘Wait a moment, we don’t know enough to know how to do that.’ What’s the balance that we ought to be seeking between basic research and clinical applications?

Alter: There is this tendency now to pursue highly directed research to solve a problem. That’s certainly how biopharma works. They want a payoff. The NIH is different. It’s a place where you can pursue your scientific interests, wherever they lead. The NIH leadership understands that the details of a problem often aren’t obvious at first. Researchers need to be allowed to observe things and then to pursue their leads as far as possible, with the understanding that not everything will work out. I think it’s very important to keep this basic research component in parallel with the more clinical applications. In the case of hepatitis C, it started as a clinical problem that led to a basic research investigation, which led back to a clinical problem. It was bedside-to-bench-to-bedside.

Collins: Are people still getting infected with hepatitis C?

Alter: Yes, hepatitis C remains a global problem. Seventy million people have contracted the virus, though the majority are generally asymptomatic, meaning they don’t get sick from it. Instead, they carry around the virus for decades without knowing it. That’s because the hepatitis C virus likes to persist, and our immune system doesn’t seem to be able to get rid of it easily.

However, some of those infected will have bad outcomes, such as cirrhosis or cancer of the liver. But there’s no way of knowing who will and who won’t get sick over time. The trick now is to identify people when they’re asymptomatic and without obvious disease.

That involves testing. We’re in a unique position with hepatitis C, where we have great tests that are highly sensitive and very specific to the virus. We also have great treatments. We can cure everybody who is tested and found to be positive.

Collins: People may be surprised to hear that. Here is a chronic viral illness, for which we actually have a cure. That’s come along fairly recently. Say a bit more about that—it’s such a great story of success.

Alter: For many years, the only treatment for hepatitis C was interferon, a very difficult treatment that initially had only about a 6 percent cure rate. With further progress, it got up to around 50 percent. But the big breakthrough came in the late 1990s when Gilead Corp., having the sequenced genome of the hepatitis C virus, deduced what it needs to replicate. If we know what it needs and we interfere with that, we can stop the replication. Gilead came out with a blockbuster drug that, now in combination with another drug, aims at two different sites on the virus and cures at least 98 percent of people. It’s an oral therapy taken for only 12 weeks, sometimes as little as 8 weeks, and with virtually no side-effects. It’s like a miracle drug.

Collins: What would you say to somebody who is thinking about becoming a scientist? How do you pick an area of research that will be right for you?

Alter: It’s a tough question. Medical research is very difficult, but there’s nothing more rewarding than doing something for patients and to see a good outcome like we had with hepatitis C.

The best path forward is to work for somebody who’s already an established investigator and a good teacher. Work in his or her lab for a few years and get involved in a project. I’ve learned not get into a lot of projects. Get into something where you can become the expert and pursue it.
The other thing is to collaborate. There’s no way that one person can do everything these days. You need too much technology and lots of different areas of expertise.

Collins: You took on a high-risk project in which you didn’t know that you’d find the answer. What’s the right balance between a project that you know will be productive, and something that might be risky, but, boy, if it works, could be transformative? How did you decide which of those paths to go?

Alter: I don’t think I decided. I just went! But there were interim rewards. Finding that the paid donors were bad was a reward and it had a big impact. And the different donor testing, decreasing the amount of blood [transfused], there were all kinds of steps along the way that gave you a reward. Now, did I think that there would be a treatment, an eradication of post-transfusion hepatitis at the end of my line? No, I didn’t.

And it wouldn’t have happened if it was only me. I just got the ball rolling. But it needed Houghton’s group. It needed the technology of Charlie Rice, a co-recipient of this year’s Nobel Prize. It needed joint company involvement. So, it required massive cooperation, and I have to say that here at NIH, Bob Purcell did most of the really basic work in his lab. Patrizia Farci, my closest collaborator, does things that I can’t do. You just need people who have a different expertise.

Collins: Harvey, it’s been maybe six hours since you found out that you won the Nobel Prize. How are you going to spend the rest of your day?

Alter: Well, I have to tell you a story that just happened. We had a press conference earlier today at NIH. Afterwards, I wanted to return to my NIH office and the easiest route was through the parking garage across the street from where we held the press conference. When I entered the garage, a security guard said, “You can’t come in, you haven’t been screened for COVID.” I assured him that I had been screened when I drove onto the NIH campus. He repeated that I had to go around to the front of the building to get screened.

Finally, I said to him, “Would it make any difference if I told you that I won the Nobel Prize today?” He replied, ‘That’s nice, but you must go around to the front of the building.’” So, winning the Nobel doesn’t give you immediate rewards!

Collins: Let me find that security guard and give him a bonus for doing a good job. Well, Harvey, will there be that trip to Stockholm coming up in December?

Alter: Not this year. I’ve heard that they will invite us to Stockholm next year to receive the award. But there’s going to be something in the US. I don’t know what it will be. I’ll invite you.

Collins: I will be glad to take part in the celebration. Well, Harvey, I really want to thank you for taking some time on this special day to reflect on your career and how the Nobel Committee came calling at 4:30 this morning. We’re really proud of you!

Alter: Thank you.

Links:

Hepatitis C (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases/NIH)

The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet has today decided to award the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly to Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice for the discovery of Hepatitis C virus,” Nobel Prize announcement, October 5,2020.

Harvey Alter (Clinical Center/NIH)

The Road Not Taken, or How I Learned to Love the Liver: A Personal Perspective on Hepatitis History” Alter HJ, Hepatology. 2014 Jan;59(1):4-12.

Reflections on the History of HCV: A Posthumous Examination.” Alter HJ, Farci P, Bukh J, Purcell RH. Clinical Liver Disease, 15:1, Feb 2020.

Is Elimination of Hepatitis B and C a Pipe Dream or Reality?” Alter HJ, Chisari FV. Gastroenterology. 2019 Jan;156(2):294-296.

Michael Houghton (University of Alberta, Edmonton)

Charles Rice (The Rockefeller University, New York)

What is genome editing? (National Human Genome Research Institute/NIH)

Jennifer Doudna (University of California, Berkeley)

Emmanuelle Charpentier (Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology, Berlin, Germany)


Experts Conclude Heritable Human Genome Editing Not Ready for Clinical Applications

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We stand at a critical juncture in the history of science. CRISPR and other innovative genome editing systems have given researchers the ability to make very precise changes in the sequence, or spelling, of the human DNA instruction book. If these tools are used to make non-heritable edits in only relevant tissues, they hold enormous potential to treat or even cure a wide range of devastating disorders, such as sickle cell disease, inherited neurologic conditions, and muscular dystrophy. But profound safety, ethical, and philosophical concerns surround the use of such technologies to make heritable changes in the human genome—changes that can be passed on to offspring and have consequences for future generations of humankind.

Such concerns are not hypothetical. Two years ago, a researcher in China took it upon himself to cross this ethical red line and conduct heritable genome editing experiments in human embryos with the aim of protecting the resulting babies against HIV infection. The medical justification was indefensible, the safety issues were inadequately considered, and the consent process was woefully inadequate. In response to this epic scientific calamity, NIH supported a call by prominent scientists for an international moratorium on human heritable, or germline, genome editing for clinical purposes.

Following on the heels of this unprecedented ethical breach, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, U.S. National Academy of Medicine, and the U.K. Royal Society convened an international commission, sponsored by NIH, to conduct a comprehensive review of the clinical use of human germline genome editing. The 18-member panel, which represented 10 nations and four continents, included experts in genome editing technology; human genetics and genomics; psychology; reproductive, pediatric, and adult medicine; regulatory science; bioethics; and international law. Earlier this month, this commission issued its consensus study report, entitled Heritable Human Genome Editing [1].

The commission was designed to bring together thought leaders around the globe to engage in serious discussions about this highly controversial use of genome-editing technology. Among the concerns expressed by many of us was that if heritable genome editing were allowed to proceed without careful deliberation, the enormous potential of non-heritable genome editing for prevention and treatment of disease could become overshadowed by justifiable public outrage, fear, and disgust.

I’m gratified to say that in its new report, the expert panel closely examined the scientific and ethical issues, and concluded that heritable human genome editing is too technologically unreliable and unsafe to risk testing it for any clinical application in humans at the present time. The report cited the potential for unintended off-target DNA edits, which could have harmful health effects, such as cancer, later in life. Also noted was the risk of producing so-called mosaic embryos, in which the edits occur in only a subset of an embryo’s cells. This would make it very difficult for researchers to predict the clinical effects of heritable genome editing in human beings.

Among the many questions that the panel was asked to consider was: should society ever decide that heritable gene editing might be acceptable, what would be a viable framework for scientists, clinicians, and regulatory authorities to assess the potential clinical applications?

In response to that question, the experts replied: heritable gene editing, if ever permitted, should be limited initially to serious diseases that result from the mutation of one or both copies of a single gene. The first uses of these technologies should proceed incrementally and with extreme caution. Their potential medical benefits and harms should also be carefully evaluated before proceeding.

The commission went on to stress that before such an option could be on the table, all other viable reproductive possibilities to produce an embryo without a disease-causing alteration must be exhausted. That would essentially limit heritable gene editing to the exceedingly rare instance in which both parents have two copies of a recessive, disease-causing gene variant. Or another quite rare instance in which one parent has two copies of an altered gene for a dominant genetic disorder, such as Huntington’s disease.

Recognizing how unusual both scenarios would be, the commission held out the possibility that some would-be parents with less serious conditions might qualify if 25 percent or less of their embryos are free of the disease-causing gene variant. A possible example is familial hypercholesterolemia (FH), in which people carrying a mutation in the LDL receptor gene have unusually high levels of cholesterol in their blood. If both members of a couple are affected, only 25 percent of their biological children would be unaffected. FH can lead to early heart disease and death, but drug treatment is available and improving all the time, which makes this a less compelling example. Also, the commission again indicated that such individuals would need to have already traveled down all other possible reproductive avenues before considering heritable gene editing.

A thorny ethical question that was only briefly addressed in the commission’s report is the overall value to be attached to a couple’s desire to have a biological child. That desire is certainly understandable, although other options, such an adoption or in vitro fertilization with donor sperm, are available. This seems like a classic example of the tension between individual desires and societal concerns. Is the drive for a biological child in very high-risk situations such a compelling circumstance that it justifies asking society to start down a path towards modifying human germline DNA?

The commission recommended establishing an international scientific advisory board to monitor the rapidly evolving state of genome editing technologies. The board would serve as an access point for scientists, legislators, and the public to access credible information to weigh the latest progress against the concerns associated with clinical use of heritable human genome editing.

The National Academies/Royal Society report has been sent along to the World Health Organization (WHO), where it will serve as a resource for its expert advisory committee on human genome editing. The WHO committee is currently developing recommendations for appropriate governance mechanisms for both heritable and non-heritable human genome editing research and their clinical uses. That panel could issue its guidance later this year, which is sure to continue this very important conversation.

Reference:

[1] Heritable Human Genome Editing, Report Summary, National Academy of Sciences, September 2020.

Links:

Heritable Genome Editing Not Yet Ready to Be Tried Safely and Effectively in Humans,” National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine news release, Sep. 3, 2020.

International Commission on the Clinical Use of Human Germline Genome Editing (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine/Washington, D.C.)

Video: Report Release Webinar , International Commission on the Clinical Use of Human Germline Genome Editing (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine)

National Academy of Sciences (Washington, D.C.)

National Academy of Medicine (Washington, D.C.)

The Royal Society (London)


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.

References:

[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).

Links:

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.

References:

[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.

Links:

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.

Reference:

[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.

Links:

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


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