Parts of the scientific community hope that the gene-editing tool, also known as CRISPR, will be a scientific miracle that will eradicate diseases and fight cancers.
Others aren't so quick to sing its praises, saying it will be used to create designer babies and further widen the inequality gap.
Researchers at Case Western Reserve University have been working on a different use altogether for CRISPR: a new "universal bio-sensing" point-of-care medical device that can rapidly and efficiently detect viruses.
An extremely fast device
In order to develop their "universal biosensing" device, the researchers converted the CRISPR "recognition induced enzymatic signal" to an electrical signal. This allowed them to use it to detect the biomarkers for viruses such as human papillomavirus (HPV) or parvovirus (parvo).
"This could someday become a simple, accurate and cost-effective point-of-care device for identifying different nucleic acid viruses, such as HPV or parvo from a single droplet of a blood sample," Yifan Dai, a Ph.D. candidate in the chemistry department and lead author of the paper, explained in a press release.
"And it would also be extremely fast."
As Dai explains, existing tests for those viruses currently take up to five days for an accurate result, and they can be costly. The bio-sensor envisioned by Case Western Reserve researchers, meanwhile, would allow for accurate results in less than an hour.
It would be particularly useful in the case of viruses like Parvovirus B19, or parvo, where two out of 10 people infected have no symptoms, and HPV, a common virus that can lead to six types of cancers later in life.
While CRISPR has been tested mainly for cutting and editing DNA, 'E-CRISPR' is the name Dai and co-authors have given for their bio-sensing device application of the technology.
The device is what they call an "electrochemical platform," which relies on the precision of the CRISPR technique to identify viruses in a person's bloodstream with incredible efficiency.
"The CRISPR technique works so that it cuts all of the nonspecified single-strand DNA around it once the target is recognized, so we program to electrochemically probe this activity," he said.
"No virus — no cutting, it's that simple. And the opposite is true: If CRISPR starts to cut, we know the virus is present."