CRISPR: Making Diseases Self Destruct

Transforming modern medicine

Since Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in 1928, antibiotics have transformed modern medicine. As well as treating infections, the compounds can be used to prevent them, and have provided an invaluable tool in global healthcare. Unfortunately, the overuse of conventional antibiotics has led to growing resistance. Because of this, medical professionals need a new way of fighting fatal germs. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, food scientist Jan-Peter van Pijkeren is developing a way to infect harmful diseases with a CRISPR-laced bacteriophage that makes the disease essentially self-destruct. CRISPR has recently emerged as something of a miracle in the medical world, and scientists are gradually finding more and more useful applications. But how exactly do CRISPR based antibiotics work, and what do they mean for healthcare?

How does CRISPR kill disease?
By using a DNA slicing enzyme called Cas, CRISPR can identify and chop up the genes of invading bacterium. Add CRISPR to a bacteriophage, which infects bacteria itself, and you can destroy the pathogen. Unlike broad spectrum antibiotics which wipe out entire bacterium, the technique can kill single germ species without affecting beneficial bacteria. This makes it a much better alternative to existing drugs because it can target the offending micro-organisms. It’s also incredibly difficult for pathogenic bacteria to work up an immunity to CRISPR Cas systems as it would involve destroying molecules in its own immune system. Like most antibiotics, it’s taken in the form of a pill; previous tests involved giving bacteria an electric shock to make them fuse with CRISPR molecules, which was obviously something which can’t happen inside a human body. Van Pijkeren is currently focusing on Clostridium difficile, which the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention regards as the highest drug resistant threat. If tests are successful, van Pijkeren believes that CRISPR based antibiotics will eventually be applied to, “your bacteria of choice.” Research is still in the early stages, but in future the technique could be used to fight a plethora of other infections.

How will CRISPR based antibiotics disrupt healthcare?
The CRISPR laced bacteriophage is yet another expansion of the capabilities of the gene editing technique, making it more valuable and therefore worth investment. If the innovative antibiotic succeeds in the testing phases, it is likely to gradually replace standard antibiotics. This is good news, except perhaps for the legacy pharmaceutical companies that still make them. Their infrastructures are designed to produce the antibiotics that we use today, and unlike flexible startups, these systems will need to be changed. Following government encouragement, big American pharma companies are reconsidering antibiotic development after abandoning it as cost inefficient. As well as established firms, new companies are cropping up to create healthy competition. Paris based Eligo Bioscience and North Carolina State University spin out Locus Biosciences are two companies already looking into CRISPR antibiotics. Whilst the drive for antibiotics research has come from the US, new disease fighting techniques like CRISPR could have a positive humanitarian impact in developing countries with reduced healthcare access. Of course, this depends on the involvement of non profit organisations. For most businesses, especially young HealthTech startups, CRISPR fuelled bacteriophages present an opportunity to improve the effectiveness of antibiotics whilst gaining traction as a company.

With so much new technology saturating the healthcare industry, it seems ironic that our natural ability to adapt to drugs should cause such a serious problem. However, the work underway at academic institutions and in the labs of bioscience companies like Eligo and Locus could offer an answer to the issue of antibiotic resistance. At the moment, there are still various barriers to overcome. Certain bacteriophages, for instance, will only invade certain bacteria. However, with continued interest and investment from pharmas, startups, universities and governments, scientists could use CRISPR to formulate a new, precise antibiotic to prevent pathogens from quite literally plaguing the human race.

Can CRISPR help to solve growing resistance to antibiotics? Will this medical technology be limited to the developed world? Will new HealthTech startups or legacy pharma companies lead the way in the development of antibiotics? Comment below with your opinions.