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Gene-Editing Tool CRISPR Used To Detect Infections Such As Dengue, Zika Virus, HPV

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Three new studies about CRISPR have just been published in Science showing that the gene editing tool can also be used to develop fairly inexpensive devices that can diagnose certain infections.

CRISPR is typically associated with its potential use for treating diseases such as HIV, ALS, and even Huntington's disease, but researchers have come up with new ways that make it an even more powerful diagnostic tool.

CRISPR: DETECTR

The first study comes from Jennifer Doudna, an American biochemist and leading figure of the CRISPR revolution. Her team of researchers have produced a variant of the CRISPR tool that is able not only to cut through specific bits of double-stranded DNA but also snip single-stranded DNA near it. After discovering this, the team used CRISPR to detect a couple of common types of HPV.

It's called DETECTR, takes about an hour to produce results, and costs less than a dollar.

CRISPR: SHERLOCK 2.0

The second study comes from Feng Zhang, another CRISPR pioneer. Last year, his lab developed a system called SHERLOCK, which is able to detect bits of DNA and RNA to analyze whether fatal viruses such as Zika or dengue are in a blood sample. The latest study builds upon this tool and has produced as improved variant called SHERLOCK 2.0, now three times more sensitive than the first iteration, and also detects the aforementioned viruses — simultaneously using the same blood sample.

"SHERLOCK provides an inexpensive, easy-to-use, and sensitive diagnostic method for detecting nucleic acid material — and that can mean a virus, tumor DNA, and many other targets," said Zhang. "The SHERLOCK improvements now give us even more diagnostic information and put us closer to a tool that can be deployed in real-world applications."

CRISPR: Cell Exposure

The final study comes from American chemist and professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard. He used CRISPR to determine what chemicals a cell has been exposed to, which is quite a difficult thing to pull off.

David Liu's team of researchers devised two ways to do this. First, they used CRISPR to snip bits of plasmids — double-stranded DNA molecules naturally occurring in bacterial cells — if it's been exposed to certain chemicals. Then they compared the ratio of plasmids that were destroyed and those that remained unchanged, allowing them to determine how often the cells came into contact with certain chemicals. The second method involves changed DNA bases to determine cell exposure to antibiotics, nutrients, light, or viruses by examining changes in those bases.

The new CRISPR-based tools mentioned above are being hailed as "a new generation of diagnostics that may be more widely available and more cost effective than current technologies," according to the University of Rochester's Mitchell O'Connell, an assistant professor of Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics.

That being said, there's still a lot of work to do. The researchers must prove that the new tools are highly accurate before they can be used to diagnose certain diseases and illnesses of patients, but the researchers behind these developments have all made a huge step in the right direction.

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