Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) claim that they found some enzymes that can act like DNA scissors in a more precise way than those in the much popular technique called CRISPR.
If the discovery is confirmed, CRISPR may be soon replaced in hundreds of professional and amateur laboratories worldwide. The new technique may also help researchers better detect genetic flaws that trigger illnesses and even try to repair them.
Feng Zhang, the lead author of the study, and the U.K.-based Broad Institute were awarded the first patent on CRISPR method despite their rivals’ applications which were submitted earlier.
One of the rivals, University of California, Berkeley, contested the US patent office’s decision and requested a review to prevent a lengthy and costly legal battle. Biotech companies are also interested in the issue because some of them gained rights on either Berkeley’ or Board’s genome editing methods.
If the newly found molecules indeed are as effective or even more effective than CRISPR in genome editing processes, this could lead to new patents and the end of the current patent war.
But MIT scientists told reporters via e-mail that their method needs to be further studied before drawing final conclusions.
Kate O’Connor-Giles, a researcher from the University of Wisconsin that uses genome editing techniques to find out how neurodegenerative diseases emerge, said that the more patented CRISPR techniques out there the better. O’Connor-Giles was not involved in the MIT research.
Researchers learned about the CRISPR method from nature. For instance cheese and yogurt bacteria employ the method to repel viruses. But scientists had to make some adjustments before they could use CRISPR in their laboratories.
CRISPR acts very similar to the ‘cut-and-paste’ function of an operating system. Researchers insert an enzyme into a cell to edit its DNA. The enzyme cuts a gene from the double helix and if CRISPR is programmed to replace the missing part with new material, the cell replaces it with another gene. This mechanism was observed in many strep and staph bacteria when they fight against invading viruses.
Zhang said that the newly found method of genome editing would be both cheaper and easier. Moreover, the new technique does not have the limitations of the prior method. It does not cut both strands of the DNA helix, thus lowering the risk of genetic mutations. This is why Zhang and colleagues believe that the new technique is more precise than other methods.
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