MIT scientists report the use of a CRISPR methodology to cure mice of a rare liver disorder caused by a single genetic mutation. They say their study (“Genome editing with Cas9 in adult mice corrects a disease mutation and phenotype”), published in Nature Biotechnology, offers the first evidence that this gene-editing technique can reverse disease symptoms in living animals. CRISPR, which provides a way to snip out mutated DNA and replace it with the correct sequence, holds potential for treating many genetic disorders, according to the research team.
“What’s exciting about this approach is that we can actually correct a defective gene in a living adult animal,” says Daniel Anderson, Ph.D., the Samuel A. Goldblith associate professor of chemical engineering at MIT, a member of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, and the senior author of the paper.
The recently developed CRISPR system relies on cellular machinery that bacteria use to defend themselves from viral infection. Researchers have copied this cellular system to create gene-editing complexes that include a DNA-cutting enzyme called Cas9 bound to a short RNA guide strand that is programmed to bind to a specific genome sequence, telling Cas9 where to make its cut.
At the same time, the researchers also deliver a DNA template strand. When the cell repairs the damage produced by Cas9, it copies from the template, introducing new genetic material into the genome. Scientists envision that this kind of genome editing could one day help treat diseases such as hemophilia, Huntington’s disease, and others that are caused by single mutations.
For this study, the researchers designed three guide RNA strands that target different DNA sequences near the mutation that causes type I tyrosinemia, in a gene that codes for an enzyme called FAH. Patients with this disease, which affects about 1 in 100,000 people, cannot break down the amino acid tyrosine, which accumulates and can lead to liver failure. Current treatments include a low-protein diet and a drug called NTCB, which disrupts tyrosine production.
In experiments with adult mice carrying the mutated form of the FAH enzyme, the researchers delivered RNA guide strands along with the gene for Cas9 and a 199-nucleotide DNA template that includes the correct sequence of the mutated FAH gene.
“Delivery of components of the CRISPR-Cas9 system by hydrodynamic injection resulted in initial expression of the wild-type Fah protein in ~1/250 liver cells,” wrote the investigators. “Expansion of Fah-positive hepatocytes rescued the body weight loss phenotype.”
While the team used a high pressure injection to deliver the CRISPR components, Dr. Anderson envisions that better delivery approaches are possible. His lab is now working on methods that may be safer and more efficient, including targeted nanoparticles.