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Researchers use CRISPR to repair genetic defect that causes blindness

By Ravi Mandalia / January 28, 2016

In what has been claimed to be the first use of gene editing technique CRIPSR for replacement of a defective gene associated with a sensory disease, researchers have repaired a genetic defect that causes blindness.

The research that led to successful editing of defective genes responsible for retinitis pigmentosa (RP) – an inherited condition that causes the retina to degrade and leads to blindness in at least 1.5 million cases worldwide – in stem cells derived from a patient’s tissue was carried out by researchers at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) and University of Iowa.

Published in Scientific Reports, the study paves the way for using CRIPSR therapeutically to treat eye diseases. Researchers created stem cells from a sample of skin that was taken from a patient with retinitis pigmentosa. Because the patient-derived cells already had the disease-causing mutation, researchers used RISPR to repair the defective gene. Stephen Tsang, MD, PhD, the László Z. Bitó Associate Professor of Ophthalmology and associate professor of Pathology & Cell Biology at CUMC, and one of the study’s senior authors, says that these edited stem cells can potentially be transformed into healthy retinal cells and transplanted back into the same patient to treat vision loss.

“The X-linked form of retinitis pigmentosa is an ideal candidate for a precision medicine approach because a common mutation accounts for 90% cases,” Tsang explains. Using CRISPR –which is easily adaptable to diverse sequences of DNA, and allows for fast and accurate editing –scientists can take a patient’s own cells and make pinpoint repairs specific to that individual’s genome.

Because the corrections are made in cells derived from the patient’s own tissue, doctors can re-transplant the cells with fewer fears of rejection by the immune system. Previous clinical trials have shown that generating retinal cells from embryonic stem cells and using them for transplantation is a safe and potentially effective procedure.

In this paper, the researchers targeted one of the most common variants of retinitis pigmentosa, which is caused by a single mistake in a gene called RGPR. The composition of RGPR–which contains many repeats and tight-binding nucleotide pairs–make it a difficult gene to edit. The researchers say that preliminary success with RGPR is therefore promising for treating other forms of the condition caused by mutations in other genes.

The current treatment for retinitis pigmentosa recommended by the National Institutes of Health–consuming high doses of vitamin A–slows down vision loss but does not cure the disease.

Other types of gene therapies for retinitis pigmentosa are currently undergoing clinical trials. Unlike CRISPR-based methods, these therapies introduce stretches of DNA that supplement some of the activity of the defective gene, but do not directly correct the original mutation. Follow-up studies have shown that any gains in vision from these gene supplementation therapies wane over time.

A CRISPR-driven precision medicine approach to treating retinitis pigmentosa may improve upon current therapies and restore a patient’s vision, because CRISPR, with its pinpoint accuracy can correct the fundamental genetic defect responsible for the disease. However, CRISPR technology has not yet been approved for use in humans.

Recently, another group has used CRISPR to ablate a disease-causing mutation in a rats with retinitis pigmentosa. This study hints at the promise for using CRISPR therapeutically in humans, and the CUMC and Iowa groups are now working to show that the technique does not introduce any unintended genetic modifications in human cells, and that the corrected cells are safe for transplantation.

Tsang and colleagues believe that the first clinical use of CRISPR could be for treating an eye disease because compared to other body parts, the eye is easy to access for surgery, readily accepts new tissue, and can be noninvasively monitored.

About the author

Ravi Mandalia

Ravi serves in editorial capacity at DispatchTribunal.com and has an extensive experience in science, technology and health news.