CRISPR gene-editing technology has tremendous potential for making non-heritable DNA changes that can treat or even cure a wide range of devastating disorders, from HIV to muscular dystrophy Now, a recent animal study shows that another CRISPR system—targeting viral RNA instead of human DNA—could work as an inhaled anti-viral therapeutic that can be preprogrammed to seek out and foil potentially almost any flu strain and many other respiratory viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
How can that be? Other CRISPR gene-editing systems rely on a sequence-specific guide RNA to direct a scissor-like, bacterial enzyme (Cas9) to just the right spot in the genome to cut out, replace, or repair disease-causing mutations. This new anti-viral CRISPR system also relies on guide RNA. But the guide instead directs a different bacterial enzyme, called Cas13a, to the right spot in the viral genome to bind and cleave viral RNA and stop viruses from replicating in lung cells.
The findings, recently published in the journal Nature Biotechnology , come from the lab of Philip Santangelo, Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University, Atlanta. Earlier studies by other groups had shown the potential of Cas13 for degrading the RNA of influenza viruses in a lab dish [2,3]. In this latest work, Santangelo and colleagues turned to mice and hamsters to see whether this enzyme could actually work in the lung tissue of a living animal.
What’s interesting is how Santangelo’s team did it. Rather than delivering the Cas13a protein itself to the lungs, the CRISPR system works by supplying a messenger RNA (mRNA) with the instructions to make the anti-viral Cas13a protein. This is the same idea as the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines, which temporarily direct your muscle cells to produce viral spike proteins that launch an immune response. In this case, the lung cells translate the Cas13a mRNA to produce the protein. Directed by the guide RNA that was also delivered to the same cells, Cas13a degrades the viral RNA and stops the infection. Because mRNA doesn’t enter the cell’s nucleus, it doesn’t interact with DNA and raise potential concerns about causing unwanted genetic changes.
The researchers designed guide RNAs that were specific to a shared, highly conserved portion of influenza viruses involved in replicating their genome and infecting other cells. They also designed another set directed to key portions of SARS-CoV-2.
Next, they delivered the Cas13a mRNA and guides straight to the lungs of animals using an adapted nebulizer, just like those used to deliver medicines to the lungs of people. In mice with influenza, Cas13a degraded influenza RNA in the lungs and the animals recovered without any apparent side effects. In SARS-CoV-2-infected hamsters, the same approach limited the virus’s ability to replicate in cells as the animals COVID-19-like symptoms improved.
The findings are the first to show that mRNA can be used to express the Cas13a protein in living lung tissue, not just in cells in a dish. It’s also the first to show that the bacterial Cas13a protein is effective at slowing or stopping replication of SARS-CoV-2. The latter raises hope that this CRISPR system could be quickly adapted to fight any future novel coronaviruses that develop the ability to infect humans.
The researchers report that this approach has potential to work against the vast majority—99 percent—of the flu strains that have circulated around the world over the last century. It also should be equally effective against the new and more contagious variants of SARS-CoV-2 now circulating around the globe. While more study is needed to understand the safety of such an anti-viral approach before trying it in humans, what’s clear is basic research advances like this one hold great potential for helping us to fight life-threatening respiratory viruses of the past, present, and future.
My good friend Sam Berns was born with a rare genetic condition that causes rapid premature aging. Though Sam passed away in his teens from complications of this condition, called Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome, he’s remembered today for his truly positive outlook on life. Sam expressed it, in part, by his willingness to make adjustments that allowed him, in his words, to put things that he always wanted to do in the “can do” category.
In this same spirit on behalf of the several hundred kids worldwide with progeria and their families, a research collaboration, including my NIH lab, has now achieved a key technical advance to move non-heritable gene editing another step closer to the “can do” category to treat progeria. As published in the journal Nature, our team took advantage of new gene-editing tools to correct for the first time a single genetic misspelling responsible for progeria in a mouse model, with dramatically beneficial effects [1, 2]. This work also has implications for correcting similar single-base typos that cause other inherited genetic disorders.
The outcome of this work is incredibly gratifying for me. In 2003, my NIH lab discovered the DNA mutation that causes progeria. One seemingly small glitch—swapping a “T” in place of a “C” in a gene called lamin A (LMNA)—leads to the production of a toxic protein now known as progerin. Without treatment, children with progeria develop normally intellectually but age at an exceedingly rapid pace, usually dying prematurely from heart attacks or strokes in their early teens.
The discovery raised the possibility that correcting this single-letter typo might one day help or even cure children with progeria. But back then, we lacked the needed tools to edit DNA safely and precisely. To be honest, I didn’t think that would be possible in my lifetime. Now, thanks to advances in basic genomic research, including work that led to the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, that’s changed. In fact, there’s been substantial progress toward using gene-editing technologies, such as the CRISPR editing system, for treating or even curing a wide range of devastating genetic conditions, such as sickle cell disease and muscular dystrophy
It turns out that the original CRISPR system, as powerful as it is, works better at knocking out genes than correcting them. That’s what makes some more recently developed DNA editing agents and approaches so important. One of them, which was developed by David R. Liu, Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Cambridge, MA, and his lab members, is key to these latest findings on progeria, reported by a team including my lab in NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute and Jonathan Brown, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, TN.
The relatively new gene-editing system moves beyond knock-outs to knock-ins [3,4]. Here’s how it works: Instead of cutting DNA as CRISPR does, base editors directly convert one DNA letter to another by enzymatically changing one DNA base to become a different base. The result is much like the find-and-replace function used to fix a typo in a word processor. What’s more, the gene editor does this without cutting the DNA.
Our three labs (Liu, Brown, and Collins) first teamed up with the Progeria Research Foundation, Peabody, MA, to obtain skin cells from kids with progeria. In lab studies, we found that base editors, targeted by an appropriate RNA guide, could successfully correct the LMNA gene in those connective tissue cells. The treatment converted the mutation back to the normal gene sequence in an impressive 90 percent of the cells.
But would it work in a living animal? To get the answer, we delivered a single injection of the DNA-editing apparatus into nearly a dozen mice either three or 14 days after birth, which corresponds in maturation level roughly to a 1-year-old or 5-year-old human. To ensure the findings in mice would be as relevant as possible to a future treatment for use in humans, we took advantage of a mouse model of progeria developed in my NIH lab in which the mice carry two copies of the human LMNA gene variant that causes the condition. Those mice develop nearly all of the features of the human illness
In the live mice, the base-editing treatment successfully edited in the gene’s healthy DNA sequence in 20 to 60 percent of cells across many organs. Many cell types maintained the corrected DNA sequence for at least six months—in fact, the most vulnerable cells in large arteries actually showed an almost 100 percent correction at 6 months, apparently because the corrected cells had compensated for the uncorrected cells that had died out. What’s more, the lifespan of the treated animals increased from seven to almost 18 months. In healthy mice, that’s approximately the beginning of old age.
This is the second notable advance in therapeutics for progeria in just three months. Last November, based on preclinical work from my lab and clinical trials conducted by the Progeria Research Foundation in Boston, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first treatment for the condition. It is a drug called Zokinvy, and works by reducing the accumulation of progerin . With long-term treatment, the drug is capable of extending the life of kids with progeria by 2.5 years and sometimes more. But it is not a cure.
We are hopeful this gene editing work might eventually lead to a cure for progeria. But mice certainly aren’t humans, and there are still important steps that need to be completed before such a gene-editing treatment could be tried safely in people. In the meantime, base editors and other gene editing approaches keep getting better—with potential application to thousands of genetic diseases where we know the exact gene misspelling. As we look ahead to 2021, the dream envisioned all those years ago about fixing the tiny DNA typo responsible for progeria is now within our grasp and getting closer to landing in the “can do” category.
NIH Support: National Human Genome Research Institute; National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences; National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; Common Fund
Today, thanks to remarkable advances in antiretroviral drugs, most people with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) can expect to live an almost normal lifespan. But that means staying on medications for life. If those are stopped, HIV comes roaring back in just weeks. Finding a permanent cure for HIV infection, where the virus is completely and permanently eliminated from the body, has proven much tougher. So, I’m encouraged by recent work that shows it may be possible to eliminate HIV in a mouse model, and perhaps—with continued progress—someday we will actually cure HIV in humans.
This innovative approach relies on a one-two punch: drugs and genetic editing. First, HIV-infected mice received an experimental, long-acting form of antiretroviral therapy (ART) that suppresses viral replication. This step cleared the active HIV infection. But more was needed because HIV can “hide” by inserting its DNA into its host’s chromosomes—lying dormant until conditions are right for viral replication. To get at this infectious reservoir, researchers infused the mice with a gene-editing system designed to snip out any HIV DNA still lurking in the genomes of their spleen, bone marrow, lymph nodes, and other cells. The result? Researchers detected no signs of HIV in more than one-third of mice that received the combination treatment.
The new study in Nature Communications is the product of a collaboration between the NIH-funded labs of Howard Gendelman, University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha, and Kamel Khalili, Temple University, Philadelphia . A virologist by training, Khalili years ago realized that HIV’s ability to integrate into the genomes of its host’s cells meant that the disease couldn’t be thought of only as a typical viral infection. It had a genetic component too, suggesting that an HIV cure might require a genetic answer.
At the time, however, the tools to remove HIV DNA from human cells without harming the human genome weren’t available. That’s changed in recent years with the discovery and subsequent development of a very precise gene-editing tool known as CRISPR/Cas9.
CRISPR/Cas9 editing systems rely on a sequence-specific guide RNA to direct a scissor-like, bacterial enzyme (Cas9) to just the right spot in the genome, where it can be used to cut out, replace, or repair disease-causing mutations. Efforts are underway to apply CRISPR/Cas9 to the treatment of sickle cell disease, muscular dystrophy, and more.
Could CRISPR/Cas9 also remove HIV DNA from infected cells and eliminate the infection for good? Such an approach might be particularly helpful for people on ART who have persistent HIV DNA in the cells of their cerebrospinal fluid. A recent NIH-funded study in Journal of Clinical Investigation found that an association between this HIV reservoir and neurocognitive difficulties 
Earlier work by Khalili’s team showed that CRISPR could indeed remove HIV DNA from the genomes of host cells . The problem was that, when delivered on its own, CRISPR couldn’t snip out every last bit of viral DNA from all cells as needed to get rid of HIV completely and permanently. It was crucial to reduce the burden of HIV genomes to the lowest possible level.
Meanwhile, Gendelman’s lab had been working to develop a new and more effective way to deliver ART. Often delivered in combinations, standard ART drugs are effective in suppressing HIV replication. However, people need to take their oral medications daily without fail. Also, most ART triple therapy drugs are water soluble, which means its cocktail of medications are swiftly processed and excreted by the body without reaching many places in the body where HIV hides.
In his quest to make ART work more effectively with fewer doses, Gendelman’s team altered the chemical composition of antiretroviral medicines, generating fat-soluble drug nanocrystals. The nanocrystals were then packaged into nanoparticles and delivered by intramuscular injection. The new drug formulation, known as long-acting slow-effective release (LASER) ART, reaches lymph nodes, spleen, gut, and brain tissues where HIV lurks . Once there, it’s stored and released slowly over time. Still, like conventional ART, LASER ART can never completely cure HIV.
So, Gendelman teamed up with Khalili to ask: What would happen if LASER ART was followed by a round of CRISPR/Cas9? In a series of studies, the researchers tested LASER ART and CRISPR/Cas9, both alone and in combination. A total of 23 HIV-infected mice engineered to have some “humanized” immune features received the experimental combination therapy.
As expected, neither LASER ART nor CRISPR/Cas9 by itself proved sufficient to eradicate HIV in the mice. However, when LASER ART and CRISPR/Cas9 were delivered sequentially, the results were much different. Researchers found no evidence of HIV in the spleens or other tissues of more than one-third of the sequentially treated animals.
It’s important to note that this gene-editing approach to eradicating HIV is being applied to non-reproductive cells (somatic). The NIH does not support the use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos (germline) .
Of course, mice, even with humanized immune systems, are not humans. More research is needed to replicate these findings and to figure out how to make this approach to HIV treatment more effective in animal models before we can consider moving into human clinical trials. Still, these findings do provide a new reason for increased hope that an actual cure may ultimately be found for the tens of millions of people in the United States and around the globe now living with HIV.
NIH Support: National Institute of Mental Health; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Institute on Aging; National Institute on Drug Abuse; Common Fund
Obesity—which affects about 4 in 10 U.S. adults—increases the risk for lots of human health problems: diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers, and even anxiety and depression . It’s also been associated with increased accumulation of senescent cells, which are older cells that resist death even as they lose the ability to grow and divide.
Now, NIH-funded researchers have found that when lean mice are fed a high-fat diet that makes them obese, they also have more senescent cells in their brain and show more anxious behaviors . The researchers could reduce this obesity-driven anxiety using so-called senolytic drugs that cleared away the senescent cells. These findings are among the first to provide proof-of-concept that senolytics may offer a new avenue for treating an array of neuropsychiatric disorders, in addition to many other chronic conditions.
As we age, senescent cells accumulate in many parts of the body . But cells can also enter a senescent state at any point in life in response to major stresses, such as DNA damage or chronic infection. Studies suggest that having lots of senescent cells around, especially later in life, is associated with a wide variety of chronic conditions, including osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, vascular disease, and general frailty.
Senescent cells display a “zombie”-like behavior known as a senescence-associated secretory phenotype (SASP). In this death-defying, zombie-like state, the cells ramp up their release of proteins, bioactive lipids, DNA, and other factors that, like a zombie virus, induce nearby healthy cells to join in the dysfunction.
In fact, the team behind this latest study, led by James Kirkland, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN, recently showed that transplanting small numbers of senescent cells into young mice is enough to cause them weakness, frailty, and persistent health problems. Those ill effects were alleviated with a senolytic cocktail, including dasatinib (a leukemia drug) and quercetin (a plant compound). This drug cocktail overrode the zombie-like SASP phenotype and forced the senescent cells to undergo programmed cell death and finally die.
Previous research indicates that senescent cells also accumulate in obesity, and not just in adipose tissues. Moreover, recent studies have linked senescent cells in the brain to neurodegenerative conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, and showed in mice that dasatinib and quercetin helps to alleviate neurodegenerative disease [4,5]. In the latest paper, published in the journal Cell Metabolism, Kirkland and colleagues asked whether senescent cells in the brain also could explain anxiety-like behavior in obesity.
The answer appears to be “yes.” The researchers showed that lean mice, if allowed to feast on a high-fat diet, grew obese and became more anxious about exploring open spaces and elevated mazes.
The researchers also found that the obese mice had an increase in senescent cells in the white matter near the lateral ventricle, a part of the brain that offers a pathway for cerebrospinal fluid. Those senescent cells also contained an excessive amount of fat. Could senolytic drugs clear those cells and make the obesity-related anxiety go away?
To find out, the researchers treated lean and obese mice with a senolytic drug for 10 weeks. The treatment didn’t lead to any changes in body weight. But, as senescent cells were cleared from their brains, the obese mice showed a significant reduction in their anxiety-related behavior. They lost their anxiety without losing the weight!
More preclinical study is needed to understand more precisely how the treatment works. But, it’s worth noting that clinical trials testing a variety of senolytic drugs are already underway for many conditions associated with senescent cells, including chronic kidney disease [6,7], frailty , and premature aging associated with bone marrow transplant .
As a matter of fact, just after the Cell Metabolism paper came out, Kirkland’s team published encouraging though preliminary, first-in-human results of the previously mentioned senolytic drug dasatinib in 14 people with age-related idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a condition in which lung tissue becomes damaged and scarred . Caution is warranted as we learn more about the associated risks and benefits, but it’s safe to say we’ll be hearing a lot more about senolytics in the years ahead.