Cut It Out

Researchers Turn CRISPR Into a Virus-Killing Machine

It could help us fight everything from Ebola to the flu.

10. 11. 19 / Kristin Houser
John E. Stone/Victor Tangermann
Image by John E. Stone/Victor Tangermann

On the surface, Ebola and the flu might not seem all that similar — one can cause organ failure or death, while the other usually just makes you feel really crummy — but they actually have the same underlying cause: an RNA-based virus.

That’s the type of virus behind some of the most common — and deadly — illnesses in the world, and researchers have just discovered a way to use the powerful gene-editing technology CRISPR in the fight against them.

On Thursday, a team lead by researchers from Harvard and MIT’s Broad Institute published a study in the journal Molecular Cell detailing their creation of CARVER (Cas13-Assisted Restriction of Viral Expression and Readout), a system that utilizes the CRISPR enzyme Cas13, which “naturally targets viral RNA in bacteria,” according to a Broad Institute press release.

The team started by analyzing RNA-based viruses to look for viral RNA sequences that Cas13 could target. They specifically wanted to cut sequences that were unlikely to cause mutatations, but would likely disable the virus.

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“In theory, you could program Cas13 to attack virtually any part of a virus,” researcher Cameron Myhrvold said in the press release. “But there’s huge diversity within and among species, and much of the genome changes rapidly as a virus evolves. If you’re not careful, you could be going after a target that will ultimately have no effect.”

The researchers tested the system using human cells infected with three RNA-based viruses: lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus, influenza A virus, and vesicular stomatitis virus. Within 24 hours, the Cas13 enzymes they’d previously injected into the cells cut the viral RNA levels by up to 40-fold.

They then combined their Cas13 system with a diagnostic tool called SHERLOCK to give it the ability to measure viral RNA levels in a sample — and thus the CARVER system was born.

“We envision Cas13 as a research tool to explore many aspects of viral biology in human cells,” researcher Catherine Freije said in the press release.

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“It could also potentially be a clinical tool, where these systems could be used to diagnose a sample, treat a viral infection, and measure the effectiveness of the treatment,” she continued, “all with the ability to adapt CARVER quickly to deal with new or drug-resistant viruses as they emerge.”


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