Student John Hawkins Helps Develop New Technique To Enable Safer Gene-Editing

A CRISPR protein targets specific sections of DNA and cuts them. Scientists have turned this natural defense mechanism in bacteria into a tool for gene editing. *Jenna Luecke and David Steadman/Univ. of Texas at Austin*

John Hawkins, a CSEM student and a team of UT scientists, took an important step toward safer gene-editing cures for life-threatening disorders, from cancer to HIV to Huntington’s disease, by developing a technique that can spot editing mistakes a popular tool known as CRISPR makes to an individual’s genome. The research appeared in the June 29, 2017 issue of Cell.

Scientists already use the gene-editing tool called CRISPR to edit the genetic code of nearly any organism. CRISPR-based gene editing will have an enormous impact on human health. More than a dozen clinical trials employing CRISPR on human cells are reportedly already underway, but the approach is imperfect. In theory, gene-editing should work much like fixing a recurring typo in a document with an auto-correct feature, but CRISPR molecules—proteins that find and edit genes—sometimes target the wrong genes, acting more like an auto-correct feature that turns correctly spelled words into typos. Editing the wrong gene could create new problems, such as causing healthy cells to become cancerous.

The UT Austin team developed a way to rapidly test a CRISPR molecule across a person’s entire genome to foresee other DNA segments it might interact with besides its target. This new method, they say, represents a significant step toward helping doctors tailor gene therapies to individual patients, ensuring safety and effectiveness.

The full story appears on the University's news page.

Posted: June 29, 2017