Rapid test for Covid-19 shows improved sensitivity

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.

 

FULL PAPER AT NEJM

SHERLOCK-based one-step test provides rapid and sensitive COVID-19 detection 

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.

McGovern Institute Fellows Jonathan Gootenberg (far left) Omar Abudayyeh and have developed a CRISPR research tool to detect COVID-19 with McGovern Investigator Feng Zhang (far right).
Credit: Justin Knight

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.”

The STOPCovid team during a recent zoom meeting. Image: Omar Abudayyeh

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.

3 Questions: Omar Abudayyeh and Jonathan Gootenberg on COVID-19 tests

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.

Enabling coronavirus detection using CRISPR-Cas13: An open-access SHERLOCK research protocol

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.

As part of this effort, Feng Zhang, Omar Abudayyeh, and Jonathan Gootenberg have developed a research protocol, applicable to purified RNA, that may inform the development of CRISPR-based diagnostics for COVID-19.

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:

  1. Incubate extracted RNA with isothermal amplification reaction for 25 min at 42 C
  2. Incubate reaction from step 1 with Cas13 protein, guide RNA, and reporter molecule for 30 min at 37 C
  3. 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.

What’s next

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 sherlock@broadinstitute.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.

 

CRISPR makes several Discovery of the Decade lists

As we reach milestones in time, it’s common to look back and review what we learned. A number of media outlets, including National Geographic, NPR, The Hill, Popular Mechanics, Smithsonian Magazine, Nature, Mental Floss, CNBC, and others, recognized the profound impact of genome editing, adding CRISPR to their discovery of the decade lists.

“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.

CRISPR: From toolkit to therapy

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

Feng Zhang with folded arms in lab
McGovern Investigator Feng Zhang in his lab.

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.”

Soumya Kannan in the lab
Graduate student Soumya Kannan is developing smaller CRISPR tools that can be more easily packaged into viral vectors for delivery. Photo: Caitlin Cunningham

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.

CAST addition

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.

Toward delivery

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.

New CRISPR platform expands RNA editing capabilities

CRISPR-based tools have revolutionized our ability to target disease-linked genetic mutations. CRISPR technology comprises a growing family of tools that can manipulate genes and their expression, including by targeting DNA with the enzymes Cas9 and Cas12 and targeting RNA with the enzyme Cas13. This collection offers different strategies for tackling mutations. Targeting disease-linked mutations in RNA, which is relatively short-lived, would avoid making permanent changes to the genome. In addition, some cell types, such as neurons, are difficult to edit using CRISPR/Cas9-mediated editing, and new strategies are needed to treat devastating diseases that affect the brain.

McGovern Institute Investigator and Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard core member Feng Zhang and his team have now developed one such strategy, called RESCUE (RNA Editing for Specific C to U Exchange), described in the journal Science.

Zhang and his team, including first co-authors Omar Abudayyeh and Jonathan Gootenberg (both now McGovern Fellows), made use of a deactivated Cas13 to guide RESCUE to targeted cytosine bases on RNA transcripts, and used a novel, evolved, programmable enzyme to convert unwanted cytosine into uridine — thereby directing a change in the RNA instructions. RESCUE builds on REPAIR, a technology developed by Zhang’s team that changes adenine bases into inosine in RNA.

RESCUE significantly expands the landscape that CRISPR tools can target to include modifiable positions in proteins, such as phosphorylation sites. Such sites act as on/off switches for protein activity and are notably found in signaling molecules and cancer-linked pathways.

“To treat the diversity of genetic changes that cause disease, we need an array of precise technologies to choose from. By developing this new enzyme and combining it with the programmability and precision of CRISPR, we were able to fill a critical gap in the toolbox,” says Zhang, the James and Patricia Poitras Professor of Neuroscience at MIT. Zhang also has appointments in MIT’s departments of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Biological Engineering.

Expanding the reach of RNA editing to new targets

The previously developed REPAIR platform used the RNA-targeting CRISPR/Cas13 to direct the active domain of an RNA editor, ADAR2, to specific RNA transcripts where it could convert the nucleotide base adenine to inosine, or letters A to I. Zhang and colleagues took the REPAIR fusion, and evolved it in the lab until it could change cytosine to uridine, or C to U.

RESCUE can be guided to any RNA of choice, then perform a C-to-U edit through the evolved ADAR2 component of the platform. The team took the new platform into human cells, showing that they could target natural RNAs in the cell as well as 24 clinically relevant mutations in synthetic RNAs. They then further optimized RESCUE to reduce off-target editing, while minimally disrupting on-target editing.

New targets in sight

Expanded targeting by RESCUE means that sites regulating activity and function of many proteins through post-translational modifications, such as phosphorylation, glycosylation, and methylation can now be more readily targeted for editing.

A major advantage of RNA editing is its reversibility, in contrast to changes made at the DNA level, which are permanent. Thus, RESCUE could be deployed transiently in situations where a modification may be desirable temporarily, but not permanently. To demonstrate this, the team showed that in human cells, RESCUE can target specific sites in the RNA encoding β-catenin, that are known to be phosphorylated on the protein product, leading to a temporary increase in β-catenin activation and cell growth. If such a change was made permanently, it could predispose cells to uncontrolled cell growth and cancer, but by using RESCUE, transient cell growth could potentially stimulate wound healing in response to acute injuries.

The researchers also targeted a pathogenic gene variant, APOE4.  The APOE4 allele has consistently emerged as a genetic risk factor for the development of late-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Isoform APOE4 differs from APOE2, which is not a risk factor, by just two differences (both C in APOE4 vs. U in APOE2). Zhang and colleagues introduced the risk-associated APOE4 RNA into cells, and showed that RESCUE can convert its signature C’s to an APOE2 sequence, essentially converting a risk to a non-risk variant.

To facilitate additional work that will push RESCUE toward the clinic as well as enable researchers to use RESCUE as a tool to better understand disease-causing mutations, the Zhang lab plans to share the RESCUE system broadly, as they have with previously developed CRISPR tools. The technology will be freely available for academic research through the non-profit plasmid repository Addgene. Additional information can be found on the Zhang lab’s webpage.

Support for the study was provided by The Phillips Family; J. and P. Poitras; the Poitras Center for Psychiatric Disorders Research; Hock E. Tan and K. Lisa Yang Center for Autism Research.; Robert Metcalfe; David Cheng; a NIH F30 NRSA 1F30-CA210382 to Omar Abudayyeh. F.Z. is a New York Stem Cell Foundation–Robertson Investigator. F.Z. is supported by NIH grants (1R01-HG009761, 1R01-222 MH110049, and 1DP1-HL141201); the Howard Hughes Medical Institute; the New York Stem Cell Foundation and G. Harold and Leila Mathers Foundations.

Welcoming the first McGovern Fellows

We are delighted to kick off the new year by welcoming Omar Abuddayeh and Jonathan Gootenberg as the first members of our new McGovern Institute Fellows Program. The fellows program is a recently launched initiative that supports highly-talented and selected postdocs that are ready to initiate their own research program.

As McGovern Fellows, the pair will be given space, time, and support to help them follow scientific research directions of their own choosing. This provides an alternative to the traditional postdoctoral research route.

Abudayyeh and Gootenberg both defended their thesis in the fall of 2018, and graduated from the lab of Feng Zhang, who is the James and Patricia Poitras Professor of Neuroscience at MIT, a McGovern investigator and core member of the Broad Institute. During their time in the Zhang lab, Abudayyeh and Gootenberg worked on projects that sought and found new tools based on enzymes mined from bacterial CRISPR systems. Cas9 is the original programmable single-effector DNA-editing enzyme, and the new McGovern Fellows worked on teams that actively looked for CRISPR enzymes with properties distinct from and complementary to Cas9. In the course of their thesis work, they helped to identify RNA-guided RNA editing factors such as the Cas13 family. This work led to the development of the REPAIR system, which is capable of editing RNA, thus providing a CRISPR-based therapeutic avenue that is not based on permanent, heritable changes to the genome. In addition, they worked on a Cas13-based diagnostic system called SHERLOCK that can detect specific nucleic acid sequences. SHERLOCK is able to detect the presence of infectious agents such as Zika virus in an easily-deployable lateral flow format, similar to a pregnancy test.

We are excited to see the directions that the new McGovern Fellows take as they now arrive at the institute, and will keep you posted on scientific findings as they emerge from their labs.

 

What is CRISPR?

CRISPR (which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is not actually a single entity, but shorthand for a set of bacterial systems that are found with a hallmarked arrangement in the bacterial genome.

When CRISPR is mentioned, most people are likely thinking of CRISPR-Cas9, now widely known for its capacity to be re-deployed to target sequences of interest in eukaryotic cells, including human cells. Cas9 can be programmed to target specific stretches of DNA, but other enzymes have since been discovered that are able to edit DNA, including Cpf1 and Cas12b. Other CRISPR enzymes, Cas13 family members, can be programmed to target RNA and even edit and change its sequence.

The common theme that makes CRISPR enzymes so powerful, is that scientists can supply them with a guide RNA for a chosen sequence. Since the guide RNA can pair very specifically with DNA, or for Cas13 family members, RNA, researchers can basically provide a given CRISPR enzyme with a way of homing in on any sequence of interest. Once a CRISPR protein finds its target, it can be used to edit that sequence, perhaps removing a disease-associated mutation.

In addition, CRISPR proteins have been engineered to modulate gene expression and even signal the presence of particular sequences, as in the case of the Cas13-based diagnostic, SHERLOCK.

Do you have a question for The Brain? Ask it here.

Jonathan Gootenberg

Mining Biology

Jonathan Gootenberg draws from fundamental microbiology to engineer new molecular tools, which he applies to the study of aging. These tools, including the popular genome editing system CRISPR, allow for unprecedented manipulation and profiling of cellular states in the body, and have multiple applications in basic science, diagnostics, and therapeutics. Along with McGovern Fellow Omar Abudayyeh, Gootenberg uses gene editing, gene delivery, and cellular profiling methods to understand the changes that occur in the brain and other organs during aging, with the goal of generating new therapies for degenerative disease.