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It's like someone has pressed fast-forward on the gene-editing field: A simple tool that scientists can wield to snip and edit DNA is speeding the pace of advancements that could lead to treating and preventing diseases.
Findings are now coming quickly, as researchers can publish the results of their work that's made use of the tool, called CRISPR-Cas9.
The tool, often called CRISPR for short, was first shown to be able to snip DNA in 2011. It consists of a protein and a cousin of DNA, called RNA. Scientists can use it to cut DNA strands at very precise locations, enabling them to remove mutated parts of genes from a strand of genetic material.
In the past year alone, dozens of scientific papers from researchers around the world have detailed the results of studies — some promising, some critical — that used CRISPR to snip out and replace unwanted DNA to develop treatments for cancer, HIV, blindness, chronic pain, muscular dystrophy and Huntington's disease, to name a few.
"The pace of basic research discoveries has exploded, thanks to CRISPR," said biochemist and CRISPR expert Sam Sternberg, the group leader of technology development at at Berkeley, California-based Caribou Biosciences Inc., which is developing CRISPR-based solutions for medicine, agriculture, and biological research.
Although it will be a few more years before any CRISPR-based treatments could be tested in people, "hardly a day goes by without numerous new publications outlining new findings about human health and human genetics that took advantage" of this new tool, Sternberg told Live Science.
Of course, humans are not the only species with a genome. CRISPR has applications in animals and plants, too, from disabling parasites, like those that cause malaria and Lyme disease, to improving the crop yields of potatoes, citrus and tomatoes.
"[CRISPR] is incredibly powerful. It has already brought a revolution to the day-to-day life in most laboratories," said molecular biologist Jason Sheltzer, principal investigator at the Sheltzer Lab at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. Sheltzer and his team are using CRISPR to understand the biology of chromosomes and how errors associated with them may contribute to cancer.
“I am very hopeful that over the next decade gene editing will transition from being a primarily research tool to something that enables new treatments in the clinic,” said Neville Sanjana, of the New York Genome Center and an assistant professor of biology, neuroscience and physiology at New York University.
Here, we take a look at the recent advances in the fights against 10 diseases that demonstrate CRISPR's capabilities, and hint at things to come.
CancerSlide 2 of 21
CancerSlide 3 of 21
HIVSlide 4 of 21
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Huntington's diseaseSlide 6 of 21
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Duchenne muscular dystrophySlide 8 of 21