Using CRISPR Technology as a Weapon Against the Next Pandemic
Since it was first published in late 1987, CRISPR technology has proved itself to be a very powerful gene editing tool. Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, more commonly known under the acronym CRISPR, consists of sequences of genetic code that are naturally used by bacterias to find and destroy viruses (Snyder, 2020). Some diagnostics tests that use CRISPR work by programming this technology to search for specific stretches of DNA and RNA in a chosen virus. The enzymes guided by the CRISPR-Cas sequence will give out a signal if a pathogen agent is found.
As for the actual genome editing part of its functions, the sequence will lead enzymes to a particular gene before proceeding to the desired modification (deletion, activation, change in function, etc.). “Therapeutic applications for CRISPR are on the rise, with the technology playing a key role in the development of potential cures for a variety of genetic diseases by directly editing the genome.” (Straiton, 2020). While this system has many benefits for sickle cell anemia or beta thalassemia research, American researchers from Stanford University are gathering their efforts towards a CRISPR-based therapeutic for infectious diseases by using influenza as their starting point.
Bats are loved by viruses since they make incredible hosts. Just like humans, they live in large groups close to each other and spread their germs by air. However, bats’ immune systems are quite remarkable and can tolerate many viruses, such as the coronavirus strain responsible for COVID-19 which is, as we all know, harmful to humans. According to the Los Angeles Times, “Immunology lies at the heart of scientific and medical investigation of COVID-19. Every effort to explain the extraordinarily varied course of the disease, to treat it with drugs and prevent it with vaccines, depends on understanding how the virus outwits the human immune system - or vice versa.” (Cookson, Gross, and Bott, 2020) It is believed by scientists that understanding bat immunology could greatly improve our understanding of Sars-CoV-2 (COVID-19) and eventually point us in the right direction for finding clues to this pandemic. In response to viruses, contrary to humans, bats produce larger quantities of interferons. These molecules play a crucial part in activating their general immune response and in replication prevention of the virus.
The idea is to use genetic manipulation to our advantage. By using fragments of Sars-CoV-2, scientists would be able to identify problematic regions and interfere with them. Potentially, this could be applied to the human genome.
There’s also a darker side to CRISPR technology. Any biohacker or scientist with basic laboratory knowledge could purchase DNA sequences and, with the help of CRISPR, modify them to create an even deadlier virus. The potential use of this system has raised many bioethical dilemmas - How far can this narrative go? Cures and technology are constantly evolving since more tools and knowledge are available to the public. But with knowledge comes responsibility, and what’s to stop a fallen scientist from editing a virus even worse than all the ones before?
https://www.future-science.com/doi/10.2144/btn-2020-0145 (Straiton, 2020)
https://www.latimes.com/science/story/2020-09-11/what-bats-teach-developing-immunity-covid-19-coronavirus (Cookson, Gross, and Bott, 2020)