In the past year a group of synthetic proteins called CRISPR-Cas RNA-guided nucleases (RGNs) have generated great excitement in the scientific community as gene-editing tools. Exploiting a method that some bacteria use to combat viruses and other pathogens, CRISPR-Cas RGNs can cut through DNA strands at specific sites, allowing the insertion of new genetic material. However, a team of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers has found a significant limitation to the use of CRISPR-Cas RGNs, production of unwanted DNA mutations at sites other than the desired target.
"We found that expression of CRISPR-Cas RGNs in human cells can have off-target effects that, surprisingly, can occur at sites with significant sequence differences from the targeted DNA site," says J. Keith Joung, MD, PhD, associate chief for Research in the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Department of Pathology and co-senior author of the report receiving online publication in Nature Biotechnology. "RGNs continue to have tremendous advantages over other genome editing technologies, but these findings have now focused our work on improving their precision."
Consisting of a DNA-cutting enzyme called Cas 9, coupled with a short, 20-nucleotide segment of RNA that matches the target DNA segment, CRISPR-Cas RGNs mimic the primitive immune systems of certain bacteria. When these microbes are infected by viruses or other organisms, they copy a segment of the invader's genetic code and incorporate it into their DNA, passing it on to future bacterial generations. If the same pathogen is encountered in the future, the bacterial enzyme called Cas9, guided by an RNA sequence the matches the copied DNA segment, inactivates the pathogen by cutting its DNA at the target site.
About a year ago, scientists reported the first use of programmed CRISPR-Cas RGNs to target and cut specific DNA sites. Since then several research teams, including Joung's, have succesf
|Contact: Sue McGreevey|
Massachusetts General Hospital