A new study has successfully eliminated human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in mice, using a technique called CRISPR/Cas 9. The paper is the first to show complete shutdown of the virus, notorious for its continuous persistence in cells.
This is the newest achievement for a technology first developed only four years ago. The tool has been gaining increased attention for its ability to physically cut out unwanted genes and alter them.
Head of Genetics at Monash University, Dr. Richard Burke said development of CRISPR/Cas 9 was a significant step for biotechnology.
“It gives researchers, for the first time, the (theoretical) ability to introduce precise changes into the genome of any organism, even humans. This has huge implications for both research and health / biotechnology.” said Dr Burke.
“Researchers can now study gene function in intricate detail by altering tiny portions of a particular gene and monitoring the effect on the manipulated organism,” he said.
“For the first time, it makes the dream of reversing serious genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis a tangible reality.”
CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) is naturally found as part of a bacteria’s immune system. Utilised by researchers, it works as a guide for the enzyme Cas 9 to modify DNA.
Researchers from Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University (LKSOM) and the University of Pittsburgh used the technology to delete HIV from the DNA of infected mice.
While other gene editing tools exist, Dr Burke said CRISPR/Cas 9 technology is far more successful.
“It is much more effective than previous techniques where entire genes were deleted or where random mutations were introduced by chemical treatments.”
The elimination of disease is the most prominent use of CRISPR/Cas 9, however there is many other areas gene editing technology can be applied to.
Other potential uses of CRISPR/Cas 9 include:
- Saving endangered animals such as the Tasmanian devil, by introducing disease resistant genes
- Creation of more successful crops with beneficial traits including higher productivity of fruit
- Bigger and stronger livestock
- Potentially bringing back extinct animals (there is research currently underway to bring back woolly mammoths)
There are some risks associated with the use of CRISPR/Cas 9, but according to Dr Burke it could safely be applied to humans very soon.
“We can never be 100% sure what effect a genome change will have on the organism. But this is not a problem in research- it’s something we want to find out.”