Cutting-edge diagnostics

How new CRISPR systems are moving the technology into diagnostics

Following the splash that CRISPR has made in the world of therapeutics, academics are expanding the tool kit of Cas enzymes and finding new uses in diagnostics. Early hints suggest the technology could become competitive, and might jump ahead of sequencing methods now at the forefront.

While it’s still early days, the biggest opportunities likely lie in faster and cheaper companion diagnostics for cancer therapies, and point-of-care readouts for infectious diseases.

CRISPR-Cas9 has revolutionized basic research and spawned myriad therapeutic programs, but thus far the system has shown little use in diagnostics. Last April, CRISPR pioneer Feng Zhang’s group ushered CRISPR into diagnostics with the first report that a Cas nuclease -- Cas13a -- could detect specific nucleic acid sequences with high sensitivity.

His lab has used the enzyme to create a diagnostic method for detecting RNA and DNA, dubbed Specific High Sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter UnLOCKing (SHERLOCK).

Zhang is a core institute member at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and co-founder of Editas Medicine Inc., one of the foundational CRISPR therapeutics companies.

The speed of progress in diagnostics is starting to mirror that in therapeutics. In the last two months alone, Zhang’s group has published a prototype diagnostic based on Cas13a, and two additional enzymes -- Cas12a and Cas13d -- have been added to the toolbox by other teams.

Moreover, the progress could set up another showdown between the labs of Zhang and competitor pioneer Jennifer Doudna, a professor of chemistry and of biochemistry and molecular biology at the

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