Researchers have modified the gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 to alter Ribonucleic acid (RNA) instead of Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), according to a report published Friday in the journal Nature. New findings would extend the uses of this technique to treat diseases in the far future.

CRISPR (Clustered Regulatory Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), is among the most simple and popular tools currently used by genetic engineers. Feng Zhang, the senior author of the paper, explained that early results for using CRISPR RNA are promising.

CRISPR-Cas9 method for genome editing – a powerful new technology with many applications in biomedical research, including the potential to treat human genetic disease. Credit: Govern Institute for Brain Research at MIT

The study was conducted on bacteria, although authors are trying to determine if the “molecular scissors” can be used with human RNA. The latter may play a significant role in cells and diseases. Some scientists suggest that it would be employed for the treatment of all types of illness.

DNA modification has amazed the scientific community for years, and now it is time for RNA

Researchers at the Broad Institute have used CRISPR to edit DNA, to alter genes responsible for the disease. Since the system only works on DNA, it is capable of making final changes on genes in a cell, said Time.

Here is a video by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that explains how CRISPR works:

RNA modifies genetic products of DNA that develop into proteins or enzymes. Using CRISPR to change RNA may be a significant step for personalized medicine of the future. For instance, it could replace drugs that people take on their daily basis.

“Nature has already invented all these really interesting mechanisms. We’re just trying to play with that and learn how they work […] then turn them into tools that will be useful to us.” Feng Zhang was quoted as saying by Nature.

CRISPR would be used to target RNA made in cancer cells

Currently, there’s a patent conflict to determine who owns rights of CRISPR-Cas9. Zhang’s team argues that it was the first to use the gene-editing approach in mammalian cells. On the other hand, another team from the University of California, Berkeley said it was the first to use it in bacteria.

According to Dr. Zhang, editing RNA could have “cool applications”. He stated that C2c2 molecules would be formed to exterminate RNA made in cancer cells, which would stop making proteins and die. “I’m pretty confident that we will have a good toolbox for using CRISPR RNA,” added Zhang.

Some diseases are caused by excess or deficiency of proteins. Altering the RNA could be useful for controlling amounts of proteins, depending on the needs of the patients. On the other hand, RNA manipulation wouldn’t be as controversial as DNA manipulation, because it would not be permanent.

A team lead Dr. Zhang is also interested in adding fluorescent tags to RNA, to monitor its activities, said Nature reporters. The team includes researchers from the National Institutes of Health, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.

“Evolution of life to a very large extent is a story of host–parasite interactions,” says Koonin, an expert in evolutionary genomics at the National Center for Biotechnology Information. “As we explore this arms race between host and parasite, we discover more and more intricate, novel ways in which cellular organisms cope with parasites and parasites counteract,” said Eugene Koonin, co-author of the study.

Source: Nature