Off-switch for CRISPR may improve safety of gene editing system

New York, Dec 30 (IANS) In a study that has the potential to improve the safety and accuracy of CRISPR applications, researchers have discovered a way to switch off the revolutionary gene-editing system used in laboratories.

“Researchers and the public are reasonably concerned about CRISPR being so powerful that it potentially gets put to dangerous uses,” said one of the researchers Joseph Bondy-Denomy from the University of California, San Francisco in the US.

“These inhibitors provide a mechanism to block nefarious or out-of-control CRISPR applications, making it safer to explore all the ways this technology can be used to help people,” Bondy-Denomy noted.

CRISPR-Cas9 has excited both researchers and the general public as a general use gene editing system.

It has the potential to enable scientists to quickly and efficiently modify genetic information and tweak gene activity in virtually any organism.

Many hope CRISPR will speed efforts to directly treat genetic disorders, among many other applications, but for the most part the technology has not yet proven quite precise enough, making occasional unintended edits along with the intended ones.

Researchers and bioethicists also worry that the technology’s very power and ease of use raise the possibility that it could potentially cause harm, either intentionally or by accident.

The newly discovered anti-CRISPR proteins — which are the first to work against the type of CRISPR-Cas9 system most commonly used by laboratories and the burgeoning gene editing industry — could help resolve both problems, Bondy-Denomy said.

To find such a switch, the researchers turned to the same billion-year arms race between viruses and bacteria that produced the CRISPR system itself.

“Just as CRISPR technology was developed from the natural anti-viral defence systems in bacteria, we can also take advantage of the anti-CRISPR proteins that viruses have sculpted to get around those bacterial defences,” lead researcher Benjamin Rauch, a post-doctoral researcher in the laboratory of Bondy-Denomy, said.

The results published in the journal Cell suggest that proteins called “AcrIIA” are potent inhibitors of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing system as it has been adopted in labs around the world.

“The next step is to show in human cells that using these inhibitors can actually improve the precision of gene editing by reducing off-target effects,” Rauch said.

–IANS

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