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CRISPR gene editing may frequently cause undetected genetic damage

Published on 17/07/18 at 08:26am

Scientists studying the gene editing technology CRISPR-Cas9 have discovered the technique appears to frequently cause genetic damage that may slip by undetected.

The findings published in the journal Nature Biotechnology suggest that the technology may be more dangerous than previously thought.

"We found that changes in the DNA have been seriously underestimated before now," said Allan Bradley, a professor at the Wellcome Sanger Institute who co-led the research published on Monday. He suggested that: “anyone thinking of using this technology for gene therapy proceeds with caution and looks very carefully to check for possible harmful effects.”

In a full systematic study conducted using both mouse and human cells, Bradley’s team discovered that CRISPR-Cas9 frequently caused mutations and large genetic rearrangements such as DNA deletions and insertions.

The technique, which is seen as a promising way to treat diseases such as HIV, cancer and sickle cell disease, acts to cut DNA at specific target sites. As such, the technology could be used to correct genetic mutations and deactivate disease-causing genes.

However the findings demonstrated that CRISPR-Cas9 could produce unwanted edits. Bradley’s team found large deletions and complicated rearrangements in which previously distant DNA sequences had been stitched together as the cell attempts to restore DNA sequences using its own DNA repair mechanisms. The team warned that some changes seen in the study were too far away from the target site to be picked up by standard analysis and testing methods and as such may go by undetected.

Nevertheless, while this study emphasises the need for thorough analysis and increased care when using gene editing technology, it should not put people off using it altogether. As stated by Robin Lovell-Badge, a stem cell expert at the London-based Francis Crick institute: “The results give no reason to panic or to lose faith in the methods when they are carried out by those who know what they are doing.”

Louis Goss

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