‘Molecular Scissors’ could stop viruses from making people sick

Scientists in Massachusetts may have found a new way to treat viruses and stop them from making people sick, using a gene editing tool called CRISPR. The tool, basically, is akin to being molecular scissors.

We’ve previously shared articles about different applications of CRISPR, from using Cas9 to image genes inside live cells to genetic modification of crops, and more. CRISPR was invented in 1987 by Osaka University researcher Yoshizumi Ishino and his colleagues, but scientists have only really learned the exciting applications of it over the past six years.

Joe Palca of NPR writes:

What’s different is that the antiviral approach researchers at the Broad Institute in Cambridge are using involves a form of CRISPR called Cas13 that targets specific regions of RNA, not DNA.

RNA is a chemical cousin of DNA. Many viruses, including flu and Zika, package their genetic instructions in RNA instead of DNA.

When a virus infects a cell in our bodies, it hijacks the cell’s molecular machinery to make copies of itself. Those new viruses can go on to spread the infection through your body.

So for therapy, “we need to be able to cut the virus at a fast enough rate to slow down replication or to stop replication from happening,” says¬†Cameron Myhrvold, a postdoc at the Broad Institute.

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Myhrvold went on to explain that RNA viruses are “like shape-shifters” in that they change their genetic sequences, and that this is why there is a new flu vaccine needed each year. Researchers will use the Cas13 treatment to observe how viruses respond to being treated with ‘molecular scissors’.

Examples of viruses that target RNA are Hepatitis C, Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), HIV, and others.

You can listen to the full story on NPR below (3 minutes):

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