How to use gene editing to fight the coronavirus

How to use gene editing to fight the coronavirus

Specific therapies are needed against Sars-Cov-2 infection. An Australian study highlights how Crispr-Cas technology can prove useful, even against variants

Photo: Louis Reed / Unsplash Against Covid-19 vaccines are definitely effective, but they are not enough. Specific therapies are also needed to cope with the pandemic in countries around the world where vaccination campaigns have slowed down and to address the spread of more contagious variants of Sars-Cov-2. The best possible treatment for Covid-19 is an effective, easy-to-administer drug that can be adapted to any variants. For the moment, the best candidates would seem to be monoclonal antibodies, which however show not a few critical issues.

In the near future, however, thanks to the Nobel Prize Crispr / Cas technology, we could have a therapy that recognizes and eliminates with great precision the genetic material of Sars-Cov-2, preventing its transmission and, in fact, eliminating the viral infection. This is what researchers from the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity and the Peter MacCallum Cancer Center in Australia found. The results, published in the journal Nature Communications, would pave the way for the development of an innovative drug.

What therapies are available

The numbers and health institutions around the world confirm it: the Covid-19 pandemic is far from over. The spread of new variants, fragile health systems, reduced implementation of public health measures and poor vaccination coverage - especially in low-income countries - are aggravating the global epidemiological situation. Although, therefore, in many states the immunization rate of the general population is quite high (in Italy it amounts to 50.21% of the population over 12) and the forecasts are promising, cases and deaths from Covid-19 are increasing in all. the world.

At least for the moment, only vaccines, however effective, are not enough: there is a need for therapies to be administered immediately after the diagnosis of Covid-19, which improve the outcomes of the disease and, hopefully, prevent transmission from one person to another. To date, there are no effective and specific approved drugs against coronavirus, although good candidates seem to be monoclonal antibodies, innovative molecules that recognize Sars-Cov-2 in a specific way and can instruct the immune system to eliminate it (last November they rose to the headlines as they were used, on a completely experimental basis, to treat the then president of the United States Donald Trump). Yet monoclonal antibodies have several problems: they are expensive, they must be administered intravenously in the hospital, and they prove less effective against the new variants. Instead, an inexpensive, oral and non-toxic antiviral drug would be needed. Scientists from the two Australian research centers want to achieve this by using Crispr technology.

The study and the results

Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats: this is what the acronym Crispr means, technology that earned Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020. Crispr / Cas, which derives from a form of adaptive immune system present in bacteria, is a gene-editing technique capable of recognizing, binding and possibly eliminating specific Rna or Dna sequences. Crispr technology currently represents an important research resource and the therapeutic future of numerous diseases, from genetic diseases to cancers.

With this study, Australian researchers have shown that the same approach with Crispr hypothesized as cancer therapy infantile is able to suppress Sars-Cov-2 replication, in an in vitro model. The researchers tested what happens in the presence of the technology they developed in human and monkey epithelial cells infected with the coronavirus. The results were encouraging, even with respect to one of the variants of concern, alpha (formerly the English variant). The Crispr system programmed by the researchers was able to suppress the virus and prevent transmission of the infection.

“Once the virus is recognized, the enzyme of the Crispr system (which is called Cas 13, ed) is activated and eliminates it ”, says Sharon R. Lewin, one of the authors of the study. The effectiveness found against the alpha variant represents a promising result, also against new variants, such as the delta variant. "The flexibility of Crispr / Cas13 means that we can try to rapidly design antivirals for Covid-19 and any new emerging virus," concludes the researcher. The next steps? In vivo studies on animals and, if all goes well, clinical studies, to verify the effective applicability of the technology as an innovative therapy for Covid-19.

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