Thursday, Aug 6, 2020

The Role of CRISPR Technology in the Development of COVID-19 - Rapid Diagnostic Tests and Treatments


As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact society worldwide, the scientific community is racing to understand SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes the disease, and respond by developing diagnostic and therapeutic approaches to combat it. Among the most powerful tools being used is CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), a gene-targeting and gene-editing technology based on the mechanism that bacteria naturally use to fight viruses. 

CRISPR has enabled an efficient, precise and affordable way to manipulate and edit genomic DNA and RNA, completely unlocking a new frontier for biological engineering. Well before the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers had begun to use CRISPR to find new ways to cure diseases, including cancer, blindness and Alzheimer’s disease; develop more sustainable methods for producing fuel; and improve food crops to better feed the growing global population. 

In nature, CRISPR plays an important role in microbial immunity. By understanding the mechanism that bacteria naturally use to fight viruses, the research community and biopharma industry are now applying CRISPR-based genome engineering to the following potential solutions for COVID-19:

Rapid Diagnostic Tests

Scientists and companies are using CRISPR to detect the RNA of SARS-CoV-2 in patient samples, developing diagnostic tests that are more efficient than the standard polymerase chain reaction (PCR) diagnostic tests now in use for COVID-19 testing, which must be conducted in sophisticated centralized labs by trained technicians. Supplementing PCR tests with CRISPR-based approaches could broaden access to COVID-19 diagnostic testing, a key strategy for stopping the transmission of the virus. The availability of such testing will be critical as we transition out of a complete shelter-in-place mode.


Understanding how a pathogen operates at the host-pathogen interface is critical to developing new treatments. To that end, researchers are using the genome-editing power of CRISPR to shed light on how SARS-CoV-2 interacts with the proteins in human cells and then generate appropriate cell models. As described in a recent Nature publication, these cell models could lead to faster discovery of a potential new treatment or an existing drug combination that could lead to a potential treatment. Furthering this approach, therapeutics developers are leveraging the convergence of technologies including CRISPR and artificial intelligence to rapidly advance discovery and development programs in innovative ways.


Researchers are utilizing CRISPR technology to develop a genetic vaccine. This approach involves using CRISPR to precisely target, cut and eliminate SARS-CoV-2 and its genome to stop the virus from infecting cells in the lung. 

Collaboration as an engine to advance COVID-19 research 

With SARS-CoV-2 transmission continuing on a global scale, it is more critical than ever that scientists have access to innovative tools that can enable rapid and accurate research. As an example, the team at Synthego, a genome engineering company that leverages machine learning, automation and gene editing to build platforms for science at scale, has been working hand-in-hand with the CDC, MIT’s Broad Institute, UCSF and others in government, academia and industry to help accelerate research being conducted by scientists in the trenches. 

Inspired by the work that our collaborators are pursuing, Synthego developed COVID-19 specific tools designed to help enhance the speed and effectiveness of the development of rapid diagnostics and treatments. These tools include bioinformatically designed custom Cas13 guide RNA collections that can be used for individual or multiple gene knockouts to develop diagnostics for SARS-CoV-2 and algorithmically-designed multi-arrayed CRISPR single-guide RNA (sgRNA) gene knockout libraries targeting 330 human genes that interact with SARS-CoV-2 proteins. These libraries can be used to investigate the molecular mechanisms of SARS-CoV-2 to identify drug combinations of enhanced efficacy, as described in this recent publication. Additional contributions have been focused on supporting the development of critical reagents for novel CRISPR-based COVID-19 point-of-care diagnostics including the STOPCovid protocol and the Sherlock™ CRISPR SARS-CoV-2 Rapid Diagnostic, which received Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the FDA in May. 

The unprecedented innovation taking place in the biopharma industry, academia and government in response to the COVID-19 pandemic today will provide a foundation for improving human health tomorrow. The current scientific efforts are representative of a paradigm-shifting movement in the life sciences – one in which the convergence of multiple technologies, the speed of information flow, and the rapid programmability and agility of technologies such as CRISPR will fundamentally change how research and development is approached and conducted. As society emerges from shelter-in-place orders, the scientific discoveries enabled by CRISPR-based genome engineering are poised to continue to drive innovation. Using the latest transformative tools, technologies and approaches, the scientific community is able to address both the challenges of today and those of the future. 

About Jason Steiner:

Jason Steiner, Ph.D., Chief Strategy Officer at Synthego, leads the company's business strategy and partnerships efforts to enable academic institutions and biotech and pharmaceutical companies to leverage Synthego’s gene engineering platform to accelerate the research, discovery, and development of next-generation therapeutics, including genetic and cellular therapies. Before Synthego, Steiner spent several years in the clinical genomics space commercializing liquid biopsy technologies in reproductive genetics and oncology at Natera. He holds a doctoral degree in materials science engineering from the University of California, San Diego, where his research focused on the development of nanoparticle delivery systems for therapeutics and diagnostics in oncology.

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