A breakthrough in genetics – described as “jaw-dropping” by one Nobel scientist – has created intense excitement among DNA experts around the world who believe the discovery will transform their ability to edit the genomes of all living organisms, including humans.
The development has been hailed as a milestone in medical science because it promises to revolutionise the study and treatment of a range of diseases, from cancer and incurable viruses to inherited genetic disorders such as sickle-cell anaemia and Down syndrome.
For the first time, scientists are able to engineer any part of the human genome with extreme precision using a revolutionary new technique called Crispr, which has been likened to editing the individual letters on any chosen page of an encyclopedia without creating spelling mistakes. The landmark development means it is now possible to make the most accurate and detailed alterations to any specific position on the DNA of the 23 pairs of human chromosomes without introducing unintended mutations or flaws, scientists said.
The technique is so accurate that scientists believe it will soon be used in gene-therapy trials on humans to treat incurable viruses such as HIV or currently untreatable genetic disorders such as Huntington’s disease. It might also be used controversially to correct gene defects in human IVF embryos, scientists said.
Until now, gene therapy has had largely to rely on highly inaccurate methods of editing the genome, often involving modified viruses that insert DNA at random into the genome – considered too risky for many patients.
The new method, however, transforms genetic engineering because it is simple and easy to edit any desired part of the DNA molecule, right down to the individual chemical building-blocks or nucleotides that make up the genetic alphabet, researchers said.
“Crispr is absolutely huge. It’s incredibly powerful and it has many applications, from agriculture to potential gene therapy in humans,” said Craig Mello of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, who shared the 2006 Nobel Prize for medicine for a previous genetic discovery called RNA interference.
“This is really a triumph of basic science and in many ways it’s better than RNA interference. It’s a tremendous breakthrough with huge implications for molecular genetics. It’s a real game-changer,” Professor Mello told The Independent.
“It’s one of those things that you have to see to believe. I read the scientific papers like everyone else but when I saw it working in my own lab, my jaw dropped. A total novice in my lab got it to work,” Professor Mello said.
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