SHERLOCK makes accurate, fast diagnoses for about 61-cents per test with no refrigeration needed; could give medical laboratories a new diagnostic tool

Genetics researchers have been riveted by ongoing discoveries related to Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) for some time now and so have anatomic pathology laboratories. The diagnostic possibilities inherent in CRISPR have been established, and now, a new diagnostic tool that works with CRISPR is set to change clinical laboratory diagnostics in a foundational way.

The tool is called SHERLOCK, which stands for (Specific High-sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter unLOCKing). And it is causing excitement in the scientific community for several reasons:

  • It can detect pathogens in extremely small amounts of genetic matter;
  • Tests can be performed using urine and/or saliva rather than blood;
  • The tests are extremely sensitive; and they
  • Cost far less than the diagnostic tests currently in use.

In an article published in Science, researchers described SHERLOCK tests that can distinguish between strains of Zika and Dengue fever, as well as determining the difference between mutations in cell-free tumor DNA.

How SHERLOCK and CRISPR Differ and Why That’s Important

Scientists have long suspected that CRISPR could be used to detect viruses. However, far more attention has been given to the its genome editing capabilities. And, there are significant differences between how CRISPR and SHERLOCK work. According to the Science article, when CRISPR is used to edit genes, a small strip of RNA directs an enzyme capable of cutting DNA to a precise location within a genome. The enzyme that CRISPR uses is called Cas9 (CRISPR associated protein 9). It works like scissors, snipping the strand of DNA, so that it is either damaged or replaced by a healthy, new sequence.

SHERLOCK, however, uses a different enzyme—Cas13a (originally dubbed C2c2 by the researchers who discovered it). Cas13a goes to RNA, rather than DNA, and once it starts cutting, it doesn’t stop. It chops through any RNA it encounters. The researchers who developed SHERLOCK describe these cuts as “collateral cleavage.” According to an article published by STAT, “All that chopping generates a fluorescent signal that can be detected with a $200 device or, sometimes, with the naked eye.”


The screenshot above is from a video in which Feng Zhang, PhD (center), a Core Member of the Broad Institute at MIT and one of the lead researchers working on SHERLOCK, and his research team, explain the difference and value SHERLOCK will make in the detection of diseases like Zika. Click on the image above to watch the video. (Video copyright: Broad Institute/MIT.)

Early Stage Detection in Clinical Laboratories

A research paper published in Science states that SHERLOCK can provide “rapid DNA or RNA detection with attomolar sensitivity and single-base mismatch specificity.” Attomolar equates to about one part per quintillion—a billion-billion. According to the article on the topic also published in Science, “The detection sensitivity of the new CRISPR-Cas13a system for specific genetic material is one million times better than the most commonly used diagnostic technique.” Such sensitivity suggests that clinical laboratories could detect pathogens at earlier stages using SHERLOCK.

The Stat article notes that, along with sensitivity, SHERLOCK has specificity. It can detect a difference of a single nucleotide, such as the difference between the African and Asian strains of Zika (for example, the African strain has been shown to cause microcephaly, whereas the Asian strain does not). Thus, the combination of sensitivity and specificity could mean that SHERLOCK would be more accurate and faster than other diagnostic tests.

Clinicians in Remote Locations Could Diagnose and Treat Illness More Quickly

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of SHERLOCK is the portability and durability of the test. It can be performed on glass fiber paper and works even after the components have been freeze dried. “We showed that this system is very stable, so you can really put it on a piece of paper and it will survive. You don’t have to refrigerate it all the times,” stated Feng Zhang, PhD, in an interview with the Washington Post. Zhang is a Core Member of the Broad Institute at MIT and was one of the scientists who developed CRISPR.

The researchers note that SHERLOCK could cost as little as 61-cents per test to perform. For clinicians working in remote locations with little or no power, such a test could improve their ability to diagnose and treatment illness in the field and possibly save lives.

“If you had something that could be used as a screening test, very inexpensively and rapidly, that would be a huge advance, particularly if it could detect an array of agents,” stated William Schaffner, MD, Professor and Chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, in the Post article. Schaffner describes the Broad Institute’s research as being “very, very provocative.”

The test could radically change the delivery of care in more modern settings, as well. “It looks like one significant step on the pathway [that] is the Holy Grail, which is developing point-of-care, or bedside detection, [that] doesn’t require expensive equipment or even reliable power,” noted Scott Weaver, PhD, in an article on Big Think. Weaver is a Professor and Director at the Institute for Human Infections and Immunity University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas.

Just the Beginning

Anatomic pathologists and clinical laboratories will want to follow SHERLOCK’s development. It could be on the path to fundamentally transforming the way disease gets diagnosed in their laboratories and in the field.

According to the Post article, “The scientists have filed several US patent applications on SHERLOCK, including for uses in detecting viruses, bacteria, and cancer-causing mutations.” In addition to taking steps to secure patents on the technology, the researchers are exploring ways to commercialize their work, as well as discussing the possibility of launching a startup. However, before this technology can be used in medical laboratory testing, SHERLOCK will have to undergo the regulatory processes with various agencies, including applying for FDA approval.

—Dava Stewart


Related Information:

New CRISPR Tool Can Detect Tiny Amounts of Viruses

CRISPR Cousin SHERLOCK May Be Able to Track Down Diseases, Scientists Say

Nucleic Acid Detection with CRISPR-Cas13a/C2c2

A New CRISPR Breakthrough Could Lead to Simpler, Cheaper Disease Diagnosis

Meet CRISPR’s Younger Brother, SHERLOCK

Trends in Genomic Research That Could Impact Clinical Laboratories and Anatomic Pathology Groups Very Soon

Pathologists and Clinical Laboratories May Soon Have a Test for Identifying Cardiac Patients at Risk from Specific Heart Drugs by Studying the Patients’ Own Heart Cells

Patent Dispute over CRISPR Gene-Editing Technology May Determine Who Will Be Paid Licensing Royalties by Medical Laboratories