A new biotechnology company co-founded by CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna is developing a device that uses CRISPR to detect all children from diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and Zika. The technology is still at the prototype stage, but research in the field is showing promising results. These diagnostic tools based on CRISPR have the potential to revolutionize the way illnesses are assessed in the hospital, or even at home.
Called Mammoth Biosciences, the company is working on a paper test the size of a credit card and smartphone application for disease detection. But the applications go further: the same technology could be used in agriculture, to determine what sickens the animals or what types of microbes are found in the soil, or even in the oil and gas industry, to detect corrosive microbes in the pipes, says Trevor Martin, the CEO of Mammoth Biosciences, who holds a Ph.D. in biology from Stanford University. However, the company focuses first on human health applications.
"We have come so far in terms of technology, but there are still all these barriers between us and we have real access to understand our health and our body and the environment that surrounds us in general," says Martin The Verge . "This is the kind of technology that really breaks those barriers and democratizes access to this kind of molecular information about the world around us."
At the heart of what Mammoth Biosciences is doing is CRISPR, a tool that has been in the headlines for its ability to accurately edit DNA. The technology takes advantage of a mechanism found in nature: bacteria use CRISPR to defend against viruses, cut pieces of their DNA and paste it elsewhere. Scientists have designed that system to edit disease-causing genes, changing the way we think about the cure of genetic diseases such as sickle cell anemia and cancer.
But CRISPR is not just a tool for gene editing. "When I think about CRISPR, I really think about the biology search engine," says Martin. CRISPR can search for precise bits of genetic code, so it can be designed to detect a genetic sequence that belongs to a particular virus, such as Zika. When combined with special enzymes, CRISPR can become an accurate diagnostic tool.
The first time this year, researchers showed that CRISPR can detect Zika, dengue and HPV virus, as well as harmful bacteria and cancer mutations in human blood, urine and saliva. These tools, developed by the laboratories of the two pioneers of CRISPR Doudna at UC Berkeley and Feng Zhang at MIT, combine CRISPR with enzymes such as Cas12a and Cas13a. These systems allow CRISPR to detect specific DNA or RNA, another important biological molecule, and then cut an "indicator molecule" that releases a fluorescent signal. The idea is that if a person's cells are infected or have a certain cancer mutation, doctors can see the signal and quickly diagnose the disease.
Martin says that Mammoth Biosciences is interested in both Cas12a and Cas13a for its diagnostic tools, and is authorizing its UC Berkeley technology. Zhang's team at MIT is also developing a CRISPR paper test, called SHERLOCK, but it is not involved in Mammoth Biosciences, and Martin says he can not comment on his work. But he adds: "We are always excited when the potential of CRISPR is further strengthened." (Doudna and Zhang have been involved in a CRISPR patent dispute for years.)
The technology would work similar to a pregnancy test: except that instead of using urine to tell you if you are pregnant, you can use urine, blood or saliva to tell you if you have a sexually transmitted infection or a particular strain of the flu. (The test could detect multiple diseases at once, says Martin.) The fluorescence signal or the color change in the paper test would be analyzed with a smartphone application. Take a photo of the results and the application tells you why it tested positive. At least that's the idea.
The company has some "working prototypes," says Martin. "We are moving to market it quickly and have it available in the coming years." Martin will not say how much the tests will cost at home, but the technology will be "accessible and affordable," he says.
Regarding the name of the company? It is a "blatant game" the idea that CRISPR could be used, at least theoretically, to return extinct species such as mammoths. The Harvard scientists are working on this, but Martin says that Mammoth Biosciences is not interested in extinction, at least for now. "We do not have plans to do that right now," he says.