CRISPR-Cas9 has been a very divisive new form of genetic technology, to say the least. While many are excited about the tool’s potential to eradicate genetic diseases, there are also many who feel that the gene editing involved in the tool could allow parents to have their own “designer babies.” But regardless whether you believe that CRISPR represents game-changing disease eradication or nothing more than immoral gene editing, the tool is getting lots of attention. And that includes attention from billionaire businessman Paul Allen, who granted funding to one of the technology’s co-creators, Jennifer Doudna, in order for her to do further research on how CRISPR can target RNA molecules.
On Wednesday, Allen gave University of California-Berkeley biochemist Doudna one of four individual awards worth $1.5 million, as part of a new initiative he had launched. The initiative is the Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group, which he says encourages “out of the box approaches at the frontiers of knowledge.”
However, what piqued Allen’s interest the most was the latest research carried out by University of California-San Diego scientists, who based their new study on Doudna’s own insights from the original CRISPR paper. Lead researcher Gene Yeo and his colleagues were able to edit CRISPR-Cas9 in such a way that it doesn’t affect DNA, but rather works on RNA molecules, which deliver genetic instructions to protein-creating ribosomes in a cell.
“For example, when we transplant neuronal cells into the spinal cord to repair injury, we don’t know where the cells go,” said Yeo in a recent phone interview. “If we could identify a cell by its RNA content, we should be able to track where it goes.”
According to Yeo, tracking RNA of cancer cells might help researchers discover more effective ways of modifying these cells, or even as much as intercepting them. Still, he made sure to set expectations reasonable for the meantime, as the research is still in the preliminary stage. Yeo said that he had only carried out a limited test to check for three things – to see if CRISPR-Cas9 could be launched into live cells without damaging the RNA, to fuse Cas9 to RNA properly without cutting DNA in the process, and to attack a fluorescent protein that could track the RNA.