McGovern Institute Fellows Omar Abudayyeh and Jonathan Gootenberg have been named the inaugural recipients of the Termeer Scholars Awards, which recognize “emerging biomedical researchers that represent the future of the biotechnology industry.” The Termeer Foundation is a nonprofit organization focused on connecting life science innovators and catalyzing the creation of new medicines.
“The Termeer Foundation is committed to championing emerging biotechnology leaders and finding people who want to solve the biggest problems in human health,” said Belinda Termeer, president of the Termeer Foundation. “By supporting researchers like Omar and Jonathan, we plant the seeds for future success in individuals who are preparing to make significant contributions in academia and industry.”
The Abudayyeh-Gootenberg lab is developing a suite of new tools to enable next-generation cellular engineering, with uses in basic research, therapeutics and diagnostics. Building off the revolutionary biology of natural biological systems, including mobile genetic elements and CRISPR systems, the team develops new approaches for understanding and manipulating genomes, transcriptomes and cellular fate. The technologies have broad applications, including in oncology, aging and genetic disease.
These tools have been adopted by researchers over the world and formed the basis for four companies that Abudayyeh and Gootenberg have co-founded. They will receive a $50,000 grant to support professional development, knowledge advancement and/or stakeholder engagement and will become part of The Termeer Foundation’s signature Network of Termeer Fellows (first-time CEOs and entrepreneurs) and Mentors (experienced industry leaders).
“The Termeer Foundation is working to improve the long odds of biotechnology by identifying and supporting future biotech leaders; if we help them succeed as leaders, we can help their innovations reach patients,” said Alan Waltws, co-founder of the Termeer Foundation. “While our Termeer Fellows program has supported first time CEOs and entrepreneurs for the past five years, our new Termeer Scholars program will provide much needed support to the researchers whose innovative ideas represent the future of the biotechnology industry – researchers like Omar and Jonathan.”
Abudayyeh and Gootenberg were honored at the Termeer Foundation’s annual dinner in Boston on June 16, 2022.
Last year, researchers at MIT’s McGovern Institute discovered and characterized Cas7-11, the first CRISPR enzyme capable of making precise, guided cuts to strands of RNA without harming cells in the process. Now, working with collaborators at the University of Tokyo, the same team has revealed that Cas7-11 can be shrunk to a more compact version, making it an even more viable option for editing the RNA inside living cells. The new, compact Cas7-11 was described today in the journal Cell along with a detailed structural analysis of the original enzyme.
“When we looked at the structure, it was clear there were some pieces that weren’t needed which we could actually remove,” says McGovern Fellow Omar Abudayyeh, who led the new work with McGovern Fellow Jonathan Gootenberg and collaborator Hiroshi Nishimasu from the University of Tokyo. “This makes the enzyme small enough that it fits into a single viral vector for therapeutic applications.”
The authors, who also include postdoctoral researcher Nathan Zhou from the McGovern Institute and Kazuki Kato from the University Tokyo, see the new three-dimensional structure of Cas7-11 as a rich resource toanswer questions about the basic biology of the enzymes and reveal other ways to tweak its function in the future.
Over the past decade, the CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technology has given researchers the ability to modify the genes inside human cells—a boon for both basic research and the development of therapeutics to reverse disease-causing genetic mutations. But CRISPR-Cas9 only works to alter DNA, and for some research and clinical purposes, editing RNA is more effective or useful.
A cell retains its DNA for life, and passes an identical copy to daughter cells as it duplicates, so any changes to DNA are relatively permanent. However, RNA is a more transient molecule, transcribed from DNA and degraded not long after.
“There are lots of positives about being able to permanently change DNA, especially when it comes to treating an inherited genetic disease,” Gootenberg says. “But for an infection, an injury or some other temporary disease, being able to temporarily modify a gene through RNA targeting makes more sense.”
Until Abudayyeh, Gootenberg and their colleagues discovered and characterized Cas7-11, the only enzyme that could target RNA had a messy side effect; when it recognized a particular gene, the enzyme—Cas13—began cutting up all the RNA around it. This property makes Cas13 effective for diagnostic tests, where it is used to detect the presence of a piece of RNA, but not very useful for therapeutics, where targeted cuts are required.
The discovery of Cas7-11 opened the doors to a more precise form of RNA editing, analogous to the Cas9 enzyme for DNA. However, the massive Cas7-11 protein was too big to fit inside a single viral vector—the empty shell of a virus that researchers typically use to deliver gene editing machinery into patient’s cells.
To determine the overall structure of Cas7-11, Abudayyeh, Gootenberg and Nishimasu used cryo-electron microscopy, which shines beams of electrons on frozen protein samples and measures how the beams are transmitted. The researchers knew that Cas7-11 was like an amalgamation of five separate Cas enzymes, fused into one single gene, but were not sure exactly how those parts folded and fit together.
“The really fascinating thing about Cas7-11, from a fundamental biology perspective, is that it should be all these separate pieces that come together, but instead you have a fusion into one gene,” Gootenberg says. “We really didn’t know what that would look like.”
The structure of Cas7-11, caught in the act of binding both its target tRNA strand and the guide RNA, which directs that binding, revealed how the pieces assembled and which parts of the protein were critical to recognizing and cutting RNA. This kind of structural insight is critical to figuring out how to make Cas7-11 carry out targeted jobs inside human cells.
The structure also illuminated a section of the protein that wasn’t serving any apparent functional role. This finding suggested the researchers could remove it, re-engineering Cas7-11 to make it smaller without taking away its ability to target RNA. Abudayyeh and Gootenberg tested the impact of removing different bits of this section, resulting in a new compact version of the protein, dubbed Cas7-11S. With Cas7-11S in hand, they packaged the system inside a single viral vector, delivered it into mammalian cells and efficiently targeted RNA.
The team is now planning future studies on other proteins that interact with Cas7-11 in the bacteria that it originates from, and also hopes to continue working towards the use of Cas7-11 for therapeutic applications.
“Imagine you could have an RNA gene therapy, and when you take it, it modifies your RNA, but when you stop taking it, that modification stops,” Abudayyeh says. “This is really just the beginning of enabling that tool set.”
This research was funded, in part, by the McGovern Institute Neurotechnology Program, K. Lisa Yang and Hock E. Tan Center for Molecular Therapeutics in Neuroscience, G. Harold & Leila Y. Mathers Charitable Foundation, MIT John W. Jarve (1978) Seed Fund for Science Innovation, FastGrants, Basis for Supporting Innovative Drug Discovery and Life Science Research Program, JSPS KAKENHI, Takeda Medical Research Foundation, and Inamori Research Institute for Science.
Researchers at MIT’s McGovern Institute have discovered a bacterial enzyme that they say could expand scientists’ CRISPR toolkit, making it easy to cut and edit RNA with the kind of precision that, until now, has only been available for DNA editing. The enzyme, called Cas7-11, modifies RNA targets without harming cells, suggesting that in addition to being a valuable research tool, it provides a fertile platform for therapeutic applications.
“This new enzyme is like the Cas9 of RNA,” says McGovern Fellow Omar Abudayyeh, referring to the DNA-cutting CRISPR enzyme that has revolutionized modern biology by making DNA editing fast, inexpensive, and exact. “It creates two precise cuts and doesn’t destroy the cell in the process like other enzymes,” he adds.
Up until now, only one other family of RNA-targeting enzymes, Cas13, has extensively been developed for RNA targeting applications. However, when Cas13 recognizes its target, it shreds any RNAs in the cell, destroying the cell along the way. Like Cas9, Cas7-11 is part of a programmable system; it can be directed at specific RNA targets using a CRISPR guide. Abudayyeh, McGovern fellow Jonathan Gootenberg, and their colleagues discovered Cas7-11 through a deep exploration of the CRISPR systems found in the microbial world. Their findings are reported today in the journal Nature.
Exploring natural diversity
Like other CRISPR proteins, Cas7-11 is used by bacteria as a defense mechanism against viruses. After encountering a new virus, bacteria that employ the CRISPR system keep a record of the infection in the form of a small snippet of the pathogen’s genetic material. Should that virus reappear, the CRISPR system is activated, guided by a small piece of RNA to destroy the viral genome and eliminate the infection.
These ancient immune systems are widespread and diverse, with different bacteria deploying different proteins to counter their viral invaders.
“Some target DNA, some target RNA. Some are very efficient in cleaving the target but have some toxicity, and others do not. They introduce different types of cuts, they can differ in specificity—and so on,” says Eugene Koonin, an evolutionary biologist at the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
Abudayyeh, Gootenberg, and Koonin have been scouring genome sequences to learn about the natural diversity of CRISPR systems—and to mine them for potential tools. The idea, Abudayyeh says, is to take advantage of the work that evolution has already done in engineering protein machines.
“We don’t know what we’ll find,” Abudayyeh says, “but let’s just explore and see what’s out there.”
As the team was poring through public databases to examine the components of different bacterial defense systems, a protein from a bacterium that had been isolated from Tokyo Bay caught their attention. Its amino acid sequence indicated that it belonged to a class of CRISPR systems that use large, multiprotein machines to find and cleave their targets. But this protein appeared to have everything it needed to carry out the job on its own. Other known single-protein Cas enzymes, including the Cas9 protein that has been widely adopted for DNA editing, belong to a separate class of CRISPR systems—but Cas7-11 blurs the boundaries of the CRISPR classification system, Koonin says.
The enzyme, which the team eventually named Cas7-11, was attractive from an engineering perspective, because single proteins are easier to deliver to cells and make better tools than their complex counterparts. But its composition also signaled an unexpected evolutionary history. The team found evidence that through evolution, the components of a more complex Cas machine had fused together to make the Cas7-11 protein. Gootenberg equates this to discovering a bat when you had previously assumed that birds are the only animals that fly, thereby recognizing that there are multiple evolutionary paths to flight. “It totally changes the landscape of how these systems are thought about, both functionally and evolutionarily,” he says.
When Gootenberg and Abudayyeh produced the Cas7-11 protein in their lab and began experimenting with it, they realized this unusual enzyme offered a powerful means to manipulate and study RNA. When they introduced it into cells along with an RNA guide, it made remarkably precise cuts, snipping its targets while leaving other RNA undisturbed. This meant they could use Cas7-11 to change specific letters in the RNA code, correcting errors introduced by genetic mutations. They were also able to program Cas7-11 to either stabilize or destroy particular RNA molecules inside cells, which gave them the ability to adjust the levels of the proteins encoded by those RNAs.
Abudayyeh and Gootenberg also found that Cas7-11’s ability to cut RNA could be dampened by a protein that appeared likely to also be involved in triggering programmed cell death, suggesting a possible link between CRISPR defense and a more extreme response to infection.
The team showed that a gene therapy vector can deliver the complete Cas7-11 editing system to cells and that Cas7-11 does not compromise cells’ health. They hope that with further development, the enzyme might one day be used to edit disease-causing sequences out of a patient’s RNA so their cells can produce healthy proteins, or to dial down the level of a protein that is doing harm due to genetic disease.
“We think that the unique way that Cas7-11 cuts enables many interesting and diverse applications,” Gootenberg says, noting that no other CRISPR tool cuts RNA so precisely. “It’s yet another great example of how these basic-biology driven explorations can yield new tools for therapeutics and diagnostics,” he adds. “And we’re certainly still just scratching the surface of what’s out there in natural diversity.”
McGovern Institute Fellows Omar Abudayyeh and Jonathan Gootenberg have both been named to MIT Technology Review’s annual list of exceptional innovators under the age of 35. The annual list recognizes “exceptionally talented technologists whose work has great potential to transform the world.”
Abudayyeh was named to the 2020 list for developing a CRISPR-based test for COVID-19; a diagnostic technology that now has potential to rapidly and economically detect a wide variety of diseases.
This year, Gootenberg is being recognized for his work with CRISPR gene editing technologies to develop a cellular engineering “toolkit” that will help scientists better understand — and treat — diseases that affect millions worldwide.
“I’m honored that our lab’s work on molecular tools for cellular engineering is being recognized for its potential impact on diagnostics and therapeutics for patients.” — Jonathan Gootenberg
During their time in the Zhang lab, Abudayyeh and Gootenberg engineered new genome editing tools based on enzymes that they and others discovered from scanning bacterial CRISPR systems. In 2018, Gootenberg and Abudayyeh became the first members of the McGovern Institute Fellows program, which supports the transition to independent research for exceptional recent PhD graduates.
“It’s exciting that alternative uses of CRISPR beyond gene editing are being recognized, including for sensing and diagnosing diverse disease states and that certain CRISPR-based COVID-19 diagnostic assays already authorized for patient use,” says Abudayyeh.
“Omar and Jonathan’s combination of basic discovery and synthetic biology continues to deliver ever more powerful tools for probing and controlling cell activity,” says McGovern Institute Director Robert Desimone. “Such tools are key to the immense challenge of understanding brain function, and treating dysfunction, the goal of the McGovern Institute.”
Now Abudayyeh and Gootenberg is expanding the boundaries of cellular engineering tools, to encompass not only genome editing but also transcriptome control and cell-state sensing — powerful technologies that can change or correct how cells behave without permanently changing their genome. Just as CRISPR has helped decode the role of genes in disease and provided a method for changing gene sequences, the pair’s cellular engineering tools reveal how cells in the body transform in response to disease and provide new means of curing disease. It is the potential of these tools to usher in a new era of cellular discoveries and treatments that caught the attention of the editors at MITTechnology Review.
“We get more than 500 nominations for the list every year, and getting that list down to 35—a task not only for the editors at MIT Technology Review but also for our 30+ judges—is one of the hardest things we do each year,” says Tim Maher, Managing Editor of MIT Technology Review. “We love the way the final list always shows what a wide variety of people there are, all around the world, working on creative solutions to some of humanity’s hardest problems.”
Gootenberg and Abudayyeh continue to work together to build a comprehensive toolkit to both understand and engineer human cells. Gootenberg and his fellow honorees will be featured at the upcoming EmTech MIT conference, MIT Technology Review’s annual flagship event that offers a perspective on the most significant developments of the year, with a focus on understanding their potential business and societal impact. EmTech MIT will be held online September 28-30, 2021.
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, researchers at MIT and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, along with their collaborators at the University of Washington, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and the Ragon Institute, have been working on a CRISPR-based diagnostic for Covid-19 that can produce results in 30 minutes to an hour, with similar accuracy as the standard PCR diagnostics now used.
The new test, known as STOPCovid, is still in the research stage but, in principle, could be made cheaply enough that people could test themselves every day. In a study appearing today in the New England Journal of Medicine, the researchers showed that on a set of patient samples, their test detected 93 percent of the positive cases as determined by PCR tests for Covid-19.
“We need rapid testing to become part of the fabric of this situation so that people can test themselves every day, which will slow down outbreak,” says Omar Abudayyeh, an MIT McGovern Fellow working on the diagnostic.
Abudayyah is one of the senior authors of the study, along with Jonathan Gootenberg, a McGovern Fellow, and Feng Zhang, a core member of the Broad Institute, investigator at the MIT McGovern Institute and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the James and Patricia Poitras ’63 Professor of Neuroscience at MIT. The first authors of the paper are MIT biological engineering graduate students Julia Joung and Alim Ladha in the Zhang lab.
A streamlined test
Zhang’s laboratory began collaborating with the Abudayyeh and Gootenberg laboratory to work on the Covid-19 diagnostic soon after the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak began. They focused on making an assay, called STOPCovid, that was simple to carry out and did not require any specialized laboratory equipment. Such a test, they hoped, would be amenable to future use in point-of-care settings, such as doctors’ offices, pharmacies, nursing homes, and schools.
“We developed STOPCovid so that everything could be done in a single step,” Joung says. “A single step means the test can be potentially performed by nonexperts outside of laboratory settings.”
In the new version of STOPCovid reported today, the researchers incorporated a process to concentrate the viral genetic material in a patient sample by adding magnetic beads that attract RNA, eliminating the need for expensive purification kits that are time-intensive and can be in short supply due to high demand. This concentration step boosted the test’s sensitivity so that it now approaches that of PCR.
“Once we got the viral genomes onto the beads, we found that that could get us to very high levels of sensitivity,” Gootenberg says.
Working with collaborators Keith Jerome at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Alex Greninger at the University of Washington, the researchers tested STOPCovid on 402 patient samples — 202 positive and 200 negative — and found that the new test detected 93 percent of the positive cases as determined by the standard CDC PCR test.
“Seeing STOPCovid working on actual patient samples was really gratifying,” Ladha says.
They also showed, working with Ann Woolley and Deb Hung at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, that the STOPCovid test works on samples taken using the less invasive anterior nares swab. They are now testing it with saliva samples, which could make at-home tests even easier to perform. The researchers are continuing to develop the test with the hope of delivering it to end users to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The goal is to make this test easy to use and sensitive, so that we can tell whether or not someone is carrying the virus as early as possible,” Zhang says.
The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Swiss National Science Foundation, the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, the Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness Evergrande Covid-19 Response Fund, the Mathers Foundation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Open Philanthropy Project, J. and P. Poitras, and R. Metcalfe.
A team of researchers at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, the Ragon Institute, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has developed a new diagnostics platform called STOP (SHERLOCK Testing in One Pot) COVID. The test can be run in an hour as a single-step reaction with minimal handling, advancing the CRISPR-based SHERLOCK diagnostic technology closer to a point-of-care or at-home testing tool. The test has not been reviewed or approved by the FDA and is currently for research purposes only.
The team began developing tests for COVID-19 in January after learning about the emergence of a new virus which has challenged the healthcare system in China. The first version of the team’s SHERLOCK-based COVID-19 diagnostics system is already being used in hospitals in Thailand to help screen patients for COVID-19 infection.
The ability to test for COVID-19 at home, or even in pharmacies or places of employment, could be a game-changer for getting people safely back to work and into their communities.
The new test is named “STOPCovid” and is based on the STOP platform. In research it has been shown to enable rapid, accurate, and highly sensitive detection of the COVID-19 virus SARS-CoV-2 with a simple protocol that requires minimal training and uses simple, readily-available equipment, such as test tubes and water baths. STOPCovid has been validated in research settings using nasopharyngeal swabs from patients diagnosed with COVID-19. It has also been tested successfully in saliva samples to which SARS-CoV-2 RNA has been added as a proof-of-principle.
The team is posting the open protocol today on a new website, STOPCovid.science. It is being made openly available in line with the COVID-19 Technology Access Framework organized by Harvard, MIT, and Stanford. The Framework sets a model by which critically important technologies that may help prevent, diagnose, or treat COVID-19 infections may be deployed for the greatest public benefit without delay.
There is an urgent need for widespread, accurate COVID-19 testing to rapidly detect new cases, ideally without the need for specialized lab equipment. Such testing would enable early detection of new infections and drive effective “test-trace-isolate” measures to quickly contain new outbreaks. However, current testing capacity is limited by a combination of requirements for complex procedures and laboratory instrumentation and dependence on limited supplies. STOPCovid can be performed without RNA extraction, and while all patient tests have been performed with samples from nasopharyngeal swabs, preliminary experiments suggest that eventually swabs may not be necessary. Removing these barriers could help enable broad distribution.
“The ability to test for COVID-19 at home, or even in pharmacies or places of employment, could be a game-changer for getting people safely back to work and into their communities,” says Feng Zhang, a co-inventor of the CRISPR genome editing technology, an investigator at the McGovern Institute and HHMI, and a core member at the Broad Institute. “Creating a point-of-care tool is a critically important goal to allow timely decisions for protecting patients and those around them.”
To meet this need, Zhang, McGovern Fellows Omar Abudayyeh and Jonathan Gootenberg, and colleagues initiated a push to develop STOPCovid. They are sharing their findings and packaging reagents so other research teams can rapidly follow up with additional testing or development. The group is also sharing data on the StopCOVID.science website and via a submitted preprint. The website is also a hub where the public can find the latest information on the team’s developments.
How it works
The STOPCovid test combines CRISPR enzymes, programmed to recognize signatures of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, with complementary amplification reagents. This combination allows detection of as few as 100 copies of SARS-CoV-2 virus in a sample. As a result, the STOPCovid test allows for rapid, accurate, and highly sensitive detection of COVID-19 that can be conducted outside clinical laboratory settings.
STOPCovid has been tested on patient nasopharyngeal swab in parallel with clinically-validated tests. In these head-to-head comparisons, STOPCovid detected infection with 97% sensitivity and 100% specificity. Results appear on an easy-to-read strip that is akin to a pregnancy test, in the absence of any expensive or specialized lab equipment. Moreover, the researchers spiked mock SARS-CoV-2 genomes into healthy saliva samples and showed that STOPCovid is capable of sensitive detection from saliva, which would obviate the need for swabs in short supply and potentially make sampling much easier.
“The test aims to ultimately be simple enough that anyone can operate it in low-resource settings, including in clinics, pharmacies, or workplaces, and it could potentially even be put into a turn-key format for use at home,” says Abudayyeh.
Gootenberg adds, “Since STOPCovid can work in less than an hour and does not require any specialized equipment, and if our preliminary results from testing synthetic virus in saliva bear out in patient samples, it could address the need for scalable testing to reopen our society.”
Importantly, the full test — both the viral genome amplification and subsequent detection — can be completed in a single reaction, as outlined on the website, from swabs or saliva. To engineer this, the team tested a number of CRISPR enzymes to find one that works well at the same temperature needed by the enzymes that perform the amplification. Zhang, Abudayyeh, Gootenberg and their teams, including graduate students Julia Joung and Alim Ladha, settled on a protein called AapCas12b, a CRISPR protein from the bacterium Alicyclobacillus acidophilus, responsible for the “off” taste associated with spoiled orange juice. With AapCas12b, the team was able to develop a test that can be performed at a constant temperature and does not require opening tubes midway through the process, a step that often leads to contamination and unreliable test results.
Information sharing and next steps
The team has prepared reagents for 10,000 tests to share with scientists and clinical collaborators for free around the world who want to evaluate the STOPCovid test for potential diagnostic use, and they have set up a website to share the latest data and updates with the scientific and clinical community. Kits and reagents can also be requested via a form on the website.
Acknowledgments: Patient samples were provided by Keith Jerome, Alex Greninger, Robert Bruneau, Mee-li W. Huang, Nam G. Kim, Xu Yu, Jonathan Li, and Bruce Walker. This work was supported by the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation and the McGovern Institute for Brain Research. F.Z is also supported by the NIH (1R01- MH110049 and 1DP1-HL141201 grants); Mathers Foundation; the Howard Hughes Medical Institute; Open Philanthropy Project; J. and P. Poitras; and R. Metcalfe.
Declaration of conflicts of interest: F.Z., O.O.A., J.S.G., J.J., and A.L. are inventors on patent applications related to this technology filed by the Broad Institute, with the specific aim of ensuring this technology can be made freely, widely, and rapidly available for research and deployment. O.O.A., J.S.G., and F.Z. are co-founders, scientific advisors, and hold equity interests in Sherlock Biosciences, Inc. F.Z. is also a co-founder of Editas Medicine, Beam Therapeutics, Pairwise Plants, and Arbor Biotechnologies.
One key to stopping the spread of COVID-19 is knowing who has it. A delay in reliable tests and COVID-19 diagnostics in the US has unfortunately painted an unreliable picture of just how many people are infected and how the epidemic is evolving. But new testing options are now becoming available and the information from these diagnostics will help guide decisions and actions important for public health.
To find out more about the current state of COVID-19 testing, we contacted McGovern Institute Fellows, Omar Abuddayeh and Jonathan Gootenberg, who have been developing CRISPR technologies to rapidly diagnose COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.
Q: How do COVID-19 tests work?
A. There are three main types of tests:
1) Detection of nucleic acid. These tests directly test for the RNA genome of the virus in a variety of sample types, such as nasopharyngeal swabs or sputum. These tests are most commonly performed using polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which can amplify a small part of the virus RNA sequence billions of fold higher to allow detection with a fluorescence measuring instrument. These types of tests are highly sensitive, allowing for early detection of the virus days after infection. PCR tests require complex instrumentation and are usually performed by skilled personnel in an advanced laboratory setting. An alternative method is SHERLOCK, a nucleic acid based test that does not need complex instrumentation and can be read out using a paper strip akin to a pregnancy test, without any loss of sensitivity or specificity. The test is also low cost and can be performed in less than an hour. Because of these features, we are hoping to gain FDA approval that allows deployment at the point of care or at home testing with our COVID-19 SHERLOCK test kit.
2) Detection of viral proteins. Some tests use a paper strip that have antibodies against COVID-19 proteins. These allow for easy detection of the virus in less than an hour but are at least a million-fold less sensitive than nucleic acid based tests because there is no amplification step. This makes them less ideal for screening purposes as many patients will not have enough viral load in sputum or swabs and will receive false negative results.
3) Serology tests detecting antibodies against the virus. These tests can also be used as a paper strip with antibodies that detect other antibodies that develop in someone’s blood in response to COVID-19 infection. Antibodies do not show up in blood until 1-2 weeks after symptoms present, so these tests are not great for catching infection at early stages. Serology tests are more useful for determining if someone has had the infection, recovered, and developed immunity. They may serve a purpose for finding immune people and deciding whether they can go back to work, or for developing antibody-based therapies.
Q. Why aren’t there more COVID-19 tests available?
A. The difficulties in getting nucleic acid detection tests stem from a confluence of multiple factors, including limited supplies of tests, limited supplies of other consumables needed for testing (such as nasal swabs or RNA purification kits), insufficient testing bandwidth at sites that can perform tests (often due to bottlenecks in labor or instruments), and complications behind the logistics of assigning tests or reporting back results. Therefore, just producing more testing material would not solve the issue outright, and either more instrumentation and labor is required, or newer, more rapid tests need to be developed that can be performed in a more distributed manner with reduced dependence on equipment, centralized labs, or RNA purification kits.
Q. What kind of COVID-19 test are you developing now?
A. We are working on a nucleic acid-based test that does not require complex instrumentation, rapidly returns results (with a goal of under one hour), and can be performed at a point-of-care location without trained professionals. We hope to accomplish this using a combination of techniques. First we are incorporating isothermal amplification technologies, which, unlike current PCR-based tests, do not require intricate heating and cooling to operate. We are combining this with our CRISPR-based diagnostics, allowing for sensitive detection and readout in a simple visual format, akin to a pregnancy test. We hope that this test will significantly lower the barrier for accurate diagnosis and provide another approach for COVID-19 surveillance.
The recent coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak presents enormous challenges for global health. To aid the global effort, Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, and our partner institutions have committed to freely providing information that may be helpful, including by sharing information that may be able to support the development of potential diagnostics.
This initial research protocol is not a diagnostic test and has not been tested on patient samples. Any diagnostic would need to be developed and validated for clinical use and would need to follow all local regulations and best practices.
The research protocol provides the basic framework for establishing a SHERLOCK-based COVID-19 test using paper strips.
The team welcomes researchers to contact them for assistance or guidance and can provide a starter kit to test this system, as available, for researchers working with COVID-19 samples.
The SHERLOCK protocol
The CRISPR-Cas13-based SHERLOCK system has been previously shown to accurately detect the presence of a number of different viruses in patient samples. The system searches for unique nucleic acid signatures and uses a test strip similar to a pregnancy test to provide a visual readout. After dipping a paper strip into a prepared sample, a line appears on the paper to indicate whether the virus is present.
Using synthetic COVID-19 RNA fragments, the team designed and tested two RNA guides that recognize two signatures of COVID-19. When combined with the Cas13 protein, these form a SHERLOCK system capable of detecting the presence of COVID-19 viral RNA.
The research protocol involves three steps. It can be used with the same RNA samples that have been extracted for current qPCR tests:
Incubate extracted RNA with isothermal amplification reaction for 25 min at 42 C
Incubate reaction from step 1 with Cas13 protein, guide RNA, and reporter molecule for 30 min at 37 C
Dip the test strip into reaction from step 2, and result should appear within five minutes.
Further details which researchers and laboratories can follow (including guide RNA sequences), can be found in the .pdf protocol, which is available here and has been submitted to bioRxiv. The protocol will be updated as the team continues experiments in parallel and in partnership with those around the world seeking to address this outbreak. The researchers will continue to update this page with the most advanced solutions.
Necessary plasmids are available through the Zhang Lab Addgene repository, and other materials are commercially available. Details for how to obtain these materials are described in the protocol.
The SHERLOCK diagnostic system has demonstrated success in other settings. The research team hopes the protocol is a useful step towards creating a system for detecting COVID-19 in patient samples using a simple readout. Further optimization, production, testing, and verification are still needed. Any diagnostic would need to follow all local regulations, best practices, and validation before it could become of actual clinical use. The researchers will continue to release and share protocol updates, and welcome updates from the community.
Organizations in any country interested in further developing and deploying this system for COVID-19 response can freely use the scientific instructions provided here and can email firstname.lastname@example.org for further free support, including guidance on developing a starter kit with the Cas13 protein, guide RNA, reporter molecule, and isothermal amplification primers.
Acknowledgments: The research team wishes to acknowledge support from the NIH (1R01- MH110049 and 1DP1-HL141201 grants); the Howard Hughes Medical Institute; McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT; the Poitras Center for Affective Disorders Research at MIT; Open Philanthropy Project; James and Patricia Poitras; and Robert Metcalfe.
Declaration of conflicts of interest: F.Z., O.O.A., and J.S.G. are inventors on patents related to Cas13, SHERLOCK, and CRISPR diagnostics, and are co-founders, scientific advisors, and hold equity interests in Sherlock Biosciences, Inc.
“In 2013, [CRISPR] was used for genome editing in a eukaryotic cell, forever altering the course of biotechnology and, ultimately our relationship with our DNA.” — Popular Mechanics
It’s rare for a molecular system to become a household name, but in less than a decade, CRISPR has done just that. McGovern Investigator Feng Zhang played a key role in leveraging CRISPR, an immune system found originally in prokaryotic – bacterial and archaeal – cells, into a broadly customizable toolbox for genomic manipulation in eukaryotic (animal and plant) cells. CRISPR allows scientists to easily and quickly make changes to genomes, has revolutionized the biomedical sciences, and has major implications for control of infectious disease, agriculture, and treatment of genetic disorders.
Think of the human body as a community of cells with specialized roles. Each cell carries the same blueprint, an array of genes comprising the genome, but different cell types have unique functions — immune cells fight invading bacteria, while neurons transmit information.
But when something goes awry, the specialization of these cells becomes a challenge for treatment. For example, neurons lack active cell repair systems required for promising gene editing techniques like CRISPR.
Can current gene editing tools be modified to work in neurons? Can we reach neurons without impacting healthy cells nearby? McGovern Institute researchers are trying to answer these questions by developing gene editing tools and delivery systems that can target — and repair — faulty brain cells.
Expanding the toolkit
Natural CRISPR systems help bacteria fend off would-be attackers. Our first glimpse of the impact of such systems was the use of CRISPR-Cas9 to edit human cells.
“Harnessing Cas9 was a major game-changer in the life sciences,” explains Feng Zhang, an investigator at the McGovern Institute and the James and Patricia Poitras Professor of Neuroscience at MIT. “But Cas9 is just one flavor of one kind of bacterial defense system — there is a treasure trove of natural systems that may have enormous potential, just waiting to be unlocked.”
By finding and optimizing new molecular tools, the Zhang lab and others have developed CRISPR tools that can now potentially target neurons and fix diverse mutation types, bringing gene therapy within reach.
Precise in space and time
A single letter change to a gene can be devastating. These genes may function only briefly during development, so a temporary “fix” during this window could be beneficial. For such cases, the Zhang lab and others have engineered tools that target short-lived RNAs. These molecules act as messengers, carrying information from DNA to be converted into functional factors in the cell.
“RNA editing is powerful from an ethical and safety standpoint,” explains Soumya Kannan, a graduate student in the Zhang lab working on these tools. “By targeting RNA molecules, which are only present for a short time, we can avoid permanent changes to the genetic material, and we can make these changes in any type of cell.”
Zhang’s team has developed twin RNA-editing tools, REPAIR and RESCUE, which can fix single RNA bases by bringing together a base editor with the CRISPR protein Cas13. These RNA-editing tools can be used in neurons because they do not rely on cellular machinery to make the targeted changes. They also have the potential to tackle a wide array of diseases in other tissue types.
If a gene is severely disrupted, more radical help may be needed: insertion of a normal gene. For this situation, Zhang’s lab recently identified CRISPR-associated transposases (CASTs) from cyanobacteria. CASTs combine Cas12k, which is targeted by a guide RNA to a precise genome location, with an enzyme that can insert gene-sized pieces of DNA.
“With traditional CRISPR you can make simple changes, similar to changing a few letters or words in a Word document. The new system can ‘copy and paste’ entire genes.” – Alim Ladha
Transposases were originally identified as enzymes that help rogue genes “jump” from one place to another in the genome. CAST uses a similar activity to insert entire genes self-sufficiently without help from the target cell so, like REPAIR and RESCUE, it can potentially be used in neurons.
“Our initial work was to fully characterize how this new system works, and test whether it can actually insert genes,” explains Alim Ladha, a graduate fellow in the Tan-Yang Center for Autism Research, who worked on CAST with Jonathan Strecker, a postdoctoral fellow in the Zhang lab.
The goal is now to use CAST to precisely target neurons and other specific cell types affected by disease.
As the gene-editing toolbox expands, McGovern labs are working on precise delivery systems.Adeno-associated virus (AAV) is an FDA-approved virus for delivering genes, but has limited room to carry the necessary cargo — CRISPR machinery plus templates — to fix genes.
To tackle this problem, McGovern Investigators Guoping Feng and Feng Zhang are working on reducing the cargo needed for therapy. In addition, the Zhang, Gootenberg and Abudayyeh labs are working on methods to precisely deliver the therapeutic packages to neurons, such as new tissue-specific viruses that can carry bigger payloads. Finally, entirely new modalities for delivery are being explored in the effort to develop gene therapy to a point where it can be safely delivered to patients.
“Cas9 has been a very useful tool for the life sciences,” says Zhang. “And it’ll be exciting to see continued progress with the broadening toolkit and delivery systems, as we make further progress toward safe gene therapies.