Discovering the CRISPR Gene

Students in Concorde’s Nursing, Practical/Vocational Nursing and Respiratory Therapy programs currently in a microbiology class have improved their health care awareness and learned of the CRISPR gene. If you haven’t, it’s only arguably the single-greatest scientific breakthrough in history. It appears it is well on the way to perhaps being the cure for cancer. Time magazine regarded the discovery so highly that it put “The CRISPR Pioneers” on its “Short List” of its Person of the Year for 2016. It’s one of the major scientific breakthroughs in health care awareness ever, and if you’re one of Concorde’s students learning about CRISPR, consider yourself lucky. For those who perhaps haven’t learned yet about CRISPR, we have a little primer to bring you up to speed.

Increasing health care awareness: What is CRISPR?

CRISPR (pronounced “crisper”) stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, which about 10 years ago were discovered by Francisco Mojica, a scientist at a university in Spain. Mojica proposed that CRISPR genes serve as part of the bacterial immune system, defending against invading species. Four years ago, a team led by Feng Zhang at the Broad Institute and MIT published the first method to engineer CRISPR to edit the genome in mouse and human cells. Simply put, CRISPR allows scientists to easily and inexpensively find and alter virtually any piece of DNA in any species. In 2016 alone it was used to edit the genes of vegetables, sheep, mosquitos and all kinds of cell samples in labs. Scientists have successfully removed an infected HIV cell from a human and demonstrated the process works in infected mice and rats. “Now, even as some scientists call for patience and extreme caution,” the Time article stated, “there’s a worldwide race to push the limits of CRISPR’s capabilities.” The next step, expected to take place in a matter of months – not years – is for T cells, a kind of immune cell, to be extracted from human cancer patients and for CRISPR to alter genes in those cells, turning them essentially into cancer superfighters. Those T cells will then be re-infused to see if they do what they’re supposed to … seek and destroy cancerous tumors. If successful, CRISPR could be used to fight other diseases such as sickle-cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, Type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s. It might even help with the fight against malaria and Zika as well.

Reasons to be cautious

According to the Time article, using CRISPR on humans is still very controversial, in part because it’s so easy. The fact that scientists can efficiently edit any gene could make it possible not only to kill cancer but also potentially change a predisposition for red hair, for being overweight or being good at math. That worries some ethicists because of what might happen if it gets into the wrong hands. As of now, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the largest sponsor of scientific research, won’t fund studies using CRISPR on human embryos. Still, the race is on, and scientists are finding plenty of willing private funding to push forward their research. One thing is for certain, everyone – not just Concorde microbiology students raising their health care awareness – will be hearing much more about the CRISPR gene in the future.
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