A new take on a revolutionary gene-editing technology called CRISPR-Cas9 could help combat the spread of drug resistant superbugs, scientists say.
A NEW take on a revolutionary gene-editing technology called CRISPR-Cas9 could help combat the spread of drug resistant superbugs, scientists say.
Researchers at a US university want to replicate the capability of CRISPR — which lets scientists edit human genes to remove nasty diseases — by creating a pill that does a similar thing by targeting bad bacteria, causing it to self destruct.
Specifically, the probiotic cocktail would “kill your bacteria of choice,” said food scientist Jan-Peter Van Pijkeren of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
He believes the idea could be used to fight germs like Clostridium difficile, a bacterium that can cause fatal infections in hospitals and nursing homes.
What is CRISPR?
According to the The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, C. difficile “has emerged as a serious worldwide public health threat, capable of causing a range of problems from mild diarrhoea to … death.”
To understand the methodology that underpins the idea of a CRISPR pill, you need to understand the basic way CRISPR-Cas 9 works.
The name is an acronym for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” which refers to the way bacteria works to fight off infection.
Bacteria store memories of viral DNA in their own genomes and use this memory (think of it like a wanted poster) along with a DNA-slicing enzyme (molecular scissors) known as a Cas to recognise and chop up the genes of invading viruses which infect bacteria, known as bacteriophage.
The “CRISPR pill”, or probiotic bacteria drink, developed by Prof Van Pijkeren would include a bacteriophage capable of carrying a customised CRISPR message to C. difficile. The message would cause C. difficile to make lethal cuts to its own DNA, effectively killing itself.
The method could prove much more precise than using antibiotics and help address the growing problem of human resistance.
“The downside of antibiotics is they are a sledgehammer that depletes and destroys the gut microbial community,” Prof van Pijkeren said in a statement.
“You want to instead use a scalpel in order to specifically eradicate the microbe of interest.”
The innovative research is still in its infancy and hasn’t even been tested on animals yet. But with the growing problem of antibiotics overprescription and resistance, the research highlights the potential of CRISPR-related technologies in providing ways to provide alternative treatments to the customary antibiotics.
However, Peter Fineran, a microbiologist at the University of Otago in New Zealand told the MIT Technological Review that “there is still quite a long way to go before this replaces our current antibiotics.”
But if it proves successful, CRISPR could become not just the world’s most effective gene editing tool, but also the best bacteria-killing technology available.
In just four short years, scientists have refined the CRISPR-Cas9 technique in order to replicate it quickly, easily and cheaply in everything from plants to animals to human cells in a discovery that could ultimately render genetic diseases obsolete.
But it also has a dark side that could wipe out entire species or pave the way for “designer babies” which has raised huge ethical questions about its use.