Unlike most other CRISPR/Cas-9 therapies that are ex vivo treatments in which cells are modified outside the body, this study was successful with an in vivo treatment
Use of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology for therapeutic purposes can be a boon for clinical laboratories. Not only is this application a step forward in the march toward precision medicine, but it can give clinical labs the essential role of sequencing a patient’s DNA to help the referring physician identify how CRISPR-Cas9 can be used to edit the patient’s DNA to treat specific health conditions.
Most pathologists and medical lab managers know that CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology has been touted as one of the most significant advances in the development of therapies for inherited genetic diseases and other conditions. Now, a pair of biotech companies have announced a milestone for CRISPR-Cas9 with early clinical data involving a treatment delivered intravenously (in vivo).
As with other therapies, determining which patients are suitable candidates for specific treatments is key to the therapy’s success. Therefore, clinical laboratories will play a critical role in identifying those patients who would most likely benefit from a CRISPR-delivered therapy.
Such is the goal of precision medicine. As methods are refined that can correct unwelcome genetic mutations in a patient, the need to do genetic testing to identify and diagnose whether a patient has a specific gene mutation associated with a specific disease will increase.
Cleveland Clinic describes ATTR amyloidosis as a “protein misfolding disorder” involving transthyretin (TTR), a protein made in the liver. The disease leads to deposits of the protein in the heart, nerves, or other organs.
According to Intellia and Regeneron, NTLA-2001 is designed to inactivate the gene that produces the protein.
The interim clinical trial data indicated that one 0.3 mg per kilogram dose of the therapy reduced serum TTR by an average of 87% at day 28. A smaller dose of 0.1 mg per kilogram reduced TTR by an average of 52%. The researchers reported “few adverse events” in the six study patients, “and those that did occur were mild in grade.”
Current treatments, the companies stated, must be administered regularly and typically reduce TTR by about 80%.
“These are the first ever clinical data suggesting that we can precisely edit target cells within the body to treat genetic disease with a single intravenous infusion of CRISPR,” said Intellia President and CEO John Leonard, MD, in a press release. “The interim results support our belief that NTLA-2001 has the potential to halt and reverse the devastating complications of ATTR amyloidosis with a single dose.”
He added that “solving the challenge of targeted delivery of CRISPR-Cas9 to the liver, as we have with NTLA-2001, also unlocks the door to treating a wide array of other genetic diseases with our modular platform, and we intend to move quickly to advance and expand our pipeline.”
In Part 2 of the Phase 1 trial, Intellia plans to evaluate the new therapy at higher doses. After the trial is complete, “the company plans to move to pivotal studies for both polyneuropathy and cardiomyopathy manifestations of ATTR amyloidosis,” the press release states.
Previous clinical trials reported results for ex vivo treatments in which cells were removed from the body, modified with CRISPR-Cas9 techniques, and then reinfused. “But to be able to edit genes directly in the body would open the door to treating a wider range of diseases,” Nature reported.
How CRISPR-Cas9 Works
On its website, CRISPR Therapeutics, a company co-founded by Emmanuelle Charpentier, PhD, a director at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin, and inventor of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing, explained that the technology “edits genes by precisely cutting DNA and then letting natural DNA repair processes take over.” It can remove fragments of DNA responsible for causing diseases, as well as repairing damaged genes or inserting new ones.
The therapies have two components: Cas9, an enzyme that cuts the DNA, and Guide RNA (gRNA), which specifies where the DNA should be cut.
Charpentier and biochemist Jennifer Doudna, PhD, Nobel Laureate, Professor of Chemistry, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and Li Ka Shing Chancellor’s Professor in Biomedical and Health at the University of California Berkeley, received the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work on CRISPR-Cas9, STAT reported.
At some future point, it can be expected that these technologies will be combined and integrated in a way that allows clinical laboratories to make very early and accurate diagnoses of many health conditions.
Clinical laboratories involved in genetic testing may find this welcomed news, after a pair of studies conducted in 2019 raised concerns about CRISPR base editing. The researchers of those studies observed that it “causes a high number of unpredictable mutations in mouse embryos and rice,” Chemical and Engineering News (C&EN) reported, adding, “Other groups have raised concerns about off-target mutations caused when the traditional CRISPR-Cas9 form of gene editing cuts DNA at a location that it wasn’t supposed to touch. The results of the new studies are surprising, however, because scientists have lauded base editors as one of the most precise forms of gene editing yet.”
Nevertheless, UC Berkeley’s latest breakthrough is expected to drive development of new and more accurate CRISPR-Cas genome-editing tools, which consist of base editors as well as nucleases, transposases, recombinases, and prime editors.
“While base editors are now widely used to introduce precise changes in organisms ranging from bacteria to plants to primates, no one has previously observed the three-dimensional molecular structure of a base editor,” he said in a UC Berkeley news release. “This collaborative project reveals the beautiful molecular structure of a state-of-the-art highly-active base editor—ABE8e—caught in the act of engaging a target DNA site.”
CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing allows scientists to permanently edit the genetic information of any organism, including human cells, and has been used in agriculture as well as medicine. A base editor is a tool that manipulates a gene by binding to DNA and replacing one nucleotide with another.
According to the recent UC Berkeley news release, the research team used a “high-powered imaging technique called cryo-electron microscopy” to reveal the base editor’s 3D shape.
Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News notes that, “The high-resolution structure is of ABE8e bound to DNA, in which the target adenine is replaced with an analog designed to trap the catalytic conformation. The structure, together with kinetic data comparing ABE8e to earlier ABEs [adenine base editors], explains how ABE8e edits DNA bases and could inform future base-editor design.”
Knowing the Cas9 fusion protein’s 3D structure may help eliminate unintended off-target effects on RNA, extending beyond the targeted DNA. However, until now, scientists have been hampered by their inability to understand the base editor’s structure.
“If you really want to design truly specific fusion protein, you have to find a way to make the catalytic domain more a part of Cas9, so that it would sense when Cas9 is on the correct target and only then get activated, instead of being active all the time,” study co-first author Audrone Lapinaite, PhD, said in the news release. At the time of the study, Lapinaite was a postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley. She is now an assistant professor at Arizona State University.
“As a structural biologist, I really want to look at a molecule and think about ways to rationally improve it. This structure and accompanying biochemistry really give us that power,” added UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow Gavin Knott, PhD, another study co-author. “We can now make rational predications for how this system will behave in a cell, because we can see it and predict how it’s going to break or predict ways to make it better.”
Clinical laboratory leaders and pathologists will want to monitor these new advances in CRISPR technology. Each breakthrough has the power to fuel development of cost-effective, rapid point-of-care diagnostics.
U.S. Patent and Trademark Office will hold hearings to determine whether University of California Berkeley, or Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, should receive patents for new genomic engineering technique
In the race to master gene-editing in ways that will advance genetic medicine and patient care, one of the hottest technologies is CRISPR, which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. But now a patent fight has the potential to complicate how pathologists and other scientists use this exciting technology.
This dispute over the CRISPR patent—a tool that has been hailed as one of the biggest biotech breakthroughs of the decade—will likely be settled in the coming months by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).