【Newsletter】Fast Covid-19 tests may be pandemic game-changer

    18 Nov 2020

    LUI Che Woo Prize for World Civilisation laureate Dr Jennifer A. Doudna and her colleagues made one of the most significant scientific discoveries of all time with her CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technology.

    The discovery truly has the power to add to the betterment of the human race due to its wide range of potential applications.

    It can be used in treating human welfare by curing diseases such as sickle cell and muscular dystrophy, while it can also be applied to plant and animal genome editing to improve agricultural productivity and crop disease resistance.

    Dr Doudna who won the prize in the Welfare Betterment category is carrying on her work and is now focused on Covid-19 rapid tests, which may make detecting the virus as simple as taking a pregnancy test.

    Although the widespread use and availability of a vaccine are what will ultimately stop the pandemic, such rapid diagnostics are likely to be a game-changer and are likely to be available long-before any vaccine.

    CRISPR-Cas9 — power to transform the world


     “ Its potential applications for improving human welfare are vast, and Dr Doudna’s work has already given hope to millions worldwide.”

    LUI Che Woo Prize board

    Dr Doudna is an American biochemist, who grew up in Hawaii and earned her PhD in biochemistry from the University of Harvard in 1989. She is currently a professor in the departments of Chemistry and of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley.

    It was in 2012, that Dr Doudna and fellow researcher, French microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier, discovered the breakthrough CRISPR-Cas9 technology that has since taken the scientific world by storm.

    The technology is able to edit genes, much like a pair of scissors, snipping out faulty parts, or changing their function. It was far simpler and cheaper than any other similar technique available and is being used across the globe as a basis for gene-related research.

    “Its potential applications for improving human welfare are vast, and Dr Doudna’s work has already given hope to millions worldwide,” the board of the LUI Che Woo Prize said on announcing the award last year.

    In media interviews, Dr Doudna has said she doesn’t want the technique to be available to just a few and compared its growth to the development of the Internet, which has helped democratise technology across the globe.

    She explained that scientists can obtain the RNA template needed for experimentation in a few days with a starter kit that costs just US$65 plus shipping.

    Doudna urges ethics focus


     “ International accolades such as this can inspire and support scientific advances that better the welfare of people worldwide.”

    Dr Jennifer A. Doudna

    However, a readily available science that provides the tools to alter human DNA also raises ethical questions and is potentially open to abuse. There has already been one high-profile controversy involving gene editing of human embryos.

    Dr Doudna has not shied away from addressing these ethical concerns, providing leadership to ensure the science is used responsibly and according to the most pressing medical needs.

    She has stressed that there is a duty to educate next-generation students about the technology and to encourage them to consider the question of ethical use.

    It was a point she stressed whilst accepting the LUI Che Woo Prize.

    “International accolades such as this can inspire and support scientific advances that better the welfare of people worldwide,” she said. “On behalf of my students, my colleagues and my collaborators, we appreciate this award and the opportunity to underscore the need for our society to use CRISPR technology responsibly.”

    Rapid tests and machine learning applications


    At present Dr Doudna and her colleagues at the Gladstone Institutes are focused on developing a fast Covid-19 test. Together with her colleagues, they are working on a CRISPR diagnostic that does not need to amplify viral RNA before testing to spot a signal. The process of expanding the cell substance adds complexity and cost and needs chemical reagents, which are in short supply. Expanding the RNA to run the diagnostic also reduces the ability to accurately determine how big a viral load a person has been exposed to. This may help doctors to determine what level of treatment a patient may need and allocate resources accordingly.

    To produce widely available tests that will deliver rapid results and can be deployed far from traditional laboratories, such as in remote communities around the world, Dr Doudna’s team is also working to combine CRISPR with smartphone technology.

    Another focus of the research is to apply machine learning to discover biomarkers that predict which patients are more likely to experience a severe form of the disease.

    The rapid tests are not as sensitive as a conventional laboratory test, using expensive machines, they are able to provide a result within five minutes, rather than a standard test, which can take a day.

    While current research is focused on human medicine given the disruption caused by the pandemic, some of the other applications of the CRISPR technology will also play a key role in helping to overcome some of the challenges facing the global population, particularly in the field of agriculture.

    Tackling food supply concerns


    Researchers are working on developing more drought resistant crops that will be able to thrive in a warming world, whilst others are producing reduced gluten wheat to help those with food intolerances. They are also working on producing disease resistant strains of crops, with Mars Corp. helping to back efforts to protect the global chocolate supply. At present a virus is devastating cacao crops in West Africa and the technique is being used to boost the plant’s ability to resist the disease.

    There has been considerable controversy over genetically modified crops, which in Europe are subject to the most stringent regulations in the world.

    So far Europe, has also applied this same level of regulation to gene-edited plants. However, in theory there are major differences which are likely to make them much more palatable to public opinion. Gene-edited plants don’t contain foreign DNA and achieve the same effects without transferring genes from one plant to another. This key differentiating factor has been recognised by U.S. regulators.

    For a full picture of how Dr Doudna and her revolutionary discovery is contributing to the LUI Che Woo Prize values of creating a better world, take the example of Samuel Acheampong.

    He’s a scholar from Ghana at Michigan State University. As a next generation student, he is using the technology to study his country’s 50 sweet potato varieties. He plans to use CRISPR to not only improve the tuber’s resistance to local viruses, but to also boost beta-carotene levels, which is a precursor for Vitamin A.

    “Vitamin A deficiency is a problem in Ghana, so you want to help to address this by improving the beta-carotene,” he told National Geographic magazine in an article about how CRISPR could transform global food supply. “We can do this in two or three years. Whatever I learn here I’m taking back to Ghana.”

    This year, Dr Doudna won the Nobel Prize in chemistry along with Charpentier and summed up her view of how CRISPR is working to the betterment of society.

    “What started as a curiosity‐driven, fundamental discovery project has now become the breakthrough strategy used by countless researchers working to help improve the human condition,” she said in UC Berkeley News. “I encourage continued support of fundamental science as well as public discourse about the ethical uses and responsible regulation of CRISPR technology.”


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