CRISPR Base Editors: An Upgrade for Treatment of Genetic Disease

The CRISPR(Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats)-Cas9(CRISPR-associated system 9) technology, often touted as one of the greatest recent inventions to drive progress in biotechnology, is currently being challenged and viewed more critically as a recent flurry of articles is casting doubt on the overall safety of this rising technology which up to now has mostly seen positive press.

CRISPR gene editing recent news and controversies

CRISPR, also often referred to as CRISPR/Cas9, is a technically and scientifically fascinating biological system that promises to yield a revolution in treatment of genetic diseases. CRISPR also offers a basis for powerful and flexible tools for furthering our understanding of eukaryotic gene expression. The underlying biology – though rather obscure just a decade ago – is nowadays an enormously active area of research in both basic science and medical/technical applications.

CRISPR

CRISPR has such a promise that a cautionary article about issues with off-target genetic mutations in some CRISPR applications (Kosicki et al., 2018), also recently presented in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) by Mohan and Marcus (2018) shook the research community. Both the study in question and the industry effects that the WSJ article touch upon are relevant when using the form of technology called CRISPR/Cas9 (Cas9 DNA nuclease paired with its targeting CRISPR RNA(s)). However, there are more advanced and specialized versions of CRISPR technology that may avoid those challenges, in this case referring to the ‘base editor’ versions of derived Cas9 (Komor et al., 2016, Nishida et al., 2016). More about the details of both will be discussed later in this post.

Image credit:  Cancer Research UK.

Recent “ruling by the European Court of Justice that gene editing equals genetic engineering”

The concerns over use of CRISPR-Cas9 in the context of therapeutic development have been further amplified with a recent ruling by the European Court of Justice that Continue reading

Long Non-coding RNAs and Their Clinical Relevance in Cancer and Cancer Therapy

Long non-coding RNAs (lncRNAs) are clinically relevant in at least two major ways: as biomarkers for cancer or carcinogenesis and as actual targets for cancer therapy.

LncRNAs as biomarkers for cancer and carcinogenesis

LncRNAs can be biomarkers for cancer or carcinogenesis, and can yield insight into possible sensitivity or resistance to potential anti-cancer therapies. A well-known example includes the FDA-approved PROGENSA PCA3 assay testing in urinary samples used as part of the screening paradigm for prostate cancer. This is one demonstration of a testable form of lncRNA that exists with sufficient stability in a non-invasive biological sample, highlighting the key attributes of stability and ability to be assayed of a viable biomarker.

LncRNAs as targets for cancer therapy

A number of lncRNA genes have been found to be expressed at elevated levels which correlate with various cancers. To investigate a possible causal connection, there are several options to reduce or knockout expression in vivo, where the technology has already been proven to be effective in in vitro or cell culture settings. These approaches include (Gutschner et al.,2018):

  • siRNAs that are complementary to lncRNA which takes advantage of the RISC/argonaute system to degrade the target molecule
  • anti-sense oligos (ASOs), refined with chemical modifications to enhance activity or stability, which have been demonstrated to function by targeting lncRNAs to the endogenous RNase H systems for destruction
  • the use of targeting ribozymes, deoxyribozymes, or CRISPR/Cas9-derived technologies which have been proposed for silencing lncRNA.

The evolving field of RNA biology and lncRNA

Image credit: Parasramka et al. (2016)

Once relegated to the ‘junk’ DNA category, large segments of the genome and their associated transcripts have long been ignored, or thought of as unimportant. Only a few Continue reading

AHSG 2017 Roundup – A Shout Out to the Women in Science

This year’s ASHG conference in Orlando was kicked off with an inspiring plenary talk by the ASHG President Dr. Nancy Cox, celebrating diversity, inviting refugees to join the human genetics research mission, and longing for the day when contributions by female scientists will be as valued and as acknowledged as those of men. She concluded with highlighting contributions of women to genetics and science thus far, and by sharing her desire that the future will have a more positive outlook in this regard.

This powerful opening talk was followed by a presentation by Bill Gates and a conversation between Bill Gates and Dr. Francis Collins on global health and genomics. Gates highlighted different projects the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had been Continue reading

PMWC 2017 Silicon Valley: Data sharing, privacy, and security

pmwc2017sv-logoThis year’s Precision Medicine World Conference (PMWC 2017 Silicon Valley) was comprised of many exciting sessions and presentations (almost 300 speakers across four tracks) in the area of next-generation sequencing, different diagnostics applications, precision medicine, big data analysis, the microbiome, large cohort studies, biobanking, and data interpretation/knowledge extraction. In addition to providing a great set of overview talks on latest developments and achievements across the health care sector, in pharma, and related to regulatory aspects, this latest rendition of PMWC also featured a government presence (the former FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf and the former Cancer Moonshot Task Force Director Greg Simon) and Elizabeth Baca (Health Advisor to Governor Brown’s Office of Planning and Research) among others that shared with the audience their respective Continue reading

Can 2017 top 2016?

In the life sciences, 2016 brought us many significant developments, and thank goodness, it’s mostly exciting and great to talk about those in length. I am talking here about technological advancements, the many new applications next-generation sequencing is seeing, genetics moving into the clinic, precision medicine finding its mark in oncology and beyond, immunotherapy establishing itself as the leading weapon to attack cancer, and more.

The significance of these developments is further manifested with clinical omics taking shape, hospitals adopting new applications, and testing and treatments that are based on next-generation sequencing, omics data, and more. The results speak a clear language: improved diagnostic tests, and more precise therapeutics.

Here a few highlights – not an all-inclusive summary – of what made 2016 so exciting.

2016

Next-generation sequencing matures

In 2016, we’ve reached a stage where the limitations of next-generation sequencing is not at the level of sequence data generation anymore, rather the limitations are associated Continue reading

2015 – A Year of Health Initiatives, Commercial Milestones, Company Acquisitions, and Scientific Achievements

2015 was a fast moving and busy year in the many fields of science, next-generation sequencing, diagnostics, and of course precision medicine. A lot can be attributed to technological advancements particularly in next-generation sequencing which has shaped where we are today. Resulting applications are growing, building on major research findings, evident in the clinic and in industry achievements in areas of aging, obesity, the precision medicine initiative, diagnostics, the $1,000 genome, liquid biopsy, NIPT, new approaches towards breast cancer treatment, and much more.

PMiUnprecedented press clearly went to the purposeful Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI) with its launch at the State of the Union address by the President in early 2015. Since then this year has brought us a flurry of activities related to this prominent initiative: building an advisory committee to the NIH Director (ACD), the creation and approval of the ACD’s working group report, the announcement of initial funding opportunities, the
White House addressing and releasing Privacy and Trust Principles, the announcement of the 2016 budget, and last but not least the launch of the precisionFDA community platform at the end of the year.

Companies have reached new milestones. 23andMe, with a $1 Billion evaluation, has entered the drug discovery arena via building its own unit and large pharmaceutical collaborations that will mine their massive customer DNA database (>800,000). The Continue reading