Rapidly expanding CRISPR toolbox could make us all healthier and save the planet

Two recent publications in the prestigious journals Nature and Science illustrate how gene editing can be further enhanced. In The Scientist, Catherine Offord provides an excellent summary of both the scientific details and the implications. The implications are so far-reaching that not only can prevention of disease become possible, but the food chain can be made healthier without the use of dangerous toxic chemicals and the impact of global pollution can be reduced. 

According to The Scientist article, the nucleotide connections between the two DNA strands are adenine-thymine (A-T) and guanine-cytosine (G-C). The presence of A-T instead of a G-C bond can cause disease. The new editing techniques (ABE: adenine base editors) can convert A-T to the “healthy” G-C bond in DNA (as reported in Nature) and in short-lived RNA (as reported in Science). This editing occurs without breaking the DNA and RNA chains, and thus reduces the chance of errors. The RNA method requires a new enzyme, Cas13.

What are the implications of the expanded toolbox for gene editing?

To understand the potential in treating human disease, it is helpful to examine what has happened so far in animal and plant research. A range of gene-edited animals and plants has been developed. There are CRISPR “low-fat” pigs, created by editing the gene that controls the animals’ fat content.  An article entitled “Welcome to the CRISPR Zoo” describes a virtual explosion of new gene-editing applications, including the creation of super-hygienic honey bees (more likely to stay healthy) and tuberculosis (TB)-resistant cows (whose milk won’t require pasteurization).  Healthier chickens won’t need antibiotics, the overuse of which is currently such a serious problem.

As for vegetables, the first meal with gene-edited soybeans and potatoes was served a year ago at Benoit New York, the Alain Ducasse restaurant in Manhattan, and written up in the New York Times this year. The dinner, hosted by the gene-editing company Cellectis, was apparently a great success. Dr. Richard Mulligan, a Harvard geneticist and one of the guests, proclaimed that it was obviously good that “Ducasse is such a culinary artist… well-known for being able to take anything and make it taste good.”

But all joking aside, gene-edited vegetables are now being added to menus outside upscale New York eateries. Prof. Stefan Jansson (Swedish University of Umea) added “CRISPR-y” (!) fried vegetables to a pasta meal with great success. 

What does expanded CRISPR technology mean for myeloma patients and all of us?

  • The fact that gene-edited animals and plants have been produced means that the technology is working and, most likely, can be applied in human systems. Resistance-to-disease and disease-treatment methods, for example, might be used in the future.
  • The use of gene editing means less use of toxic chemicals. For example, GMO (genetically modified organisms) products are hazardous to health largely because they are impregnated with chemicals considered to be carcinogenic to aid in fighting weeds and insects. CRISPR-developed crops could fight off antagonists naturally, without the need for toxic chemicals that threaten the health of humans and wildlife (butterflies and bees).
  • Editing the genes of chickens to produce healthier specimens would eliminate the need for prolific antibiotics, which cause such harm in the food chain.
  • Pollution, a massive global health problem, will take time to correct. But in the meantime, gene-editing could help purge toxic chemicals from the body and help to create tolerance or resistance to their bad effects. 

The coming CRISPR revolution is already upon us. We must be alert to seize the opportunities while remaining aware of potential dangers and/or ethical concerns. As always, we will provide updates which, in this case, seem to be coming thick and fast. 

Image of Dr. Brian G.M. DurieDr. Brian G.M. Durie serves as Chairman of the International Myeloma Foundation and serves on its Scientific Advisory Board. Additionally, he is Chairman of the IMF's International Myeloma Working Group, a consortium of nearly 200 myeloma experts from around the world. Dr. Durie also leads the IMF’s Black Swan Research Initiative®.

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