In what has been hailed as a breakthrough, scientists from Melbourne's Doherty Institute and Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre have used CRISPR gene-editing technology to successfully block the replication of the SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19, in infected human cells, according to a study published in the journal Nature Communications.
This could potentially pave the way for new COVID-19 treatments and help transform how we deal with viruses in possible future pandemics.
Using a test tube model, the scientists designed the CRISPR tool to recognize the blueprint of the SARS-CoV-2 and target its variants. The CRISPR enzyme is activated when the virus is recognized, and then, proceeds to chop up the virus, lead author Sharon Lewin from Peter Doherty Institute explained to AFP. Furthermore, the method was successful in halting viral replication in samples containing so-called "variants of concern," such as Alpha.
"We targeted several parts of the virus – parts that are very stable and don't change and parts that are highly changeable - and all worked very well in chopping up the virus," Lewin said.
The researchers think that this technique could be useful in tackling COVID-19 by providing better treatment for people who are hospitalized with COVID in the future, possibly in the form of a simple antiviral, taken orally.
Lewin explained that the ideal treatment would be the antiviral approach, which would be given to the patient just after they test positive for COVID-19, preventing them from getting seriously ill.
"This approach - test and treat - would only be feasible if we have a cheap, oral, and non-toxic antiviral. That's what we hope to achieve one day with this gene scissors approach," said Lewin.
There's more to the game-changing technology, which makes it all the more exciting. According to co-author Dr. Mohamed Fareh from the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, it can be reprogrammed to target any virus, as long as you know the sequence of the virus, and its flexibility and adaptability make it "a suitable drug against a multitude of pathogenic viruses including influenza, Ebola, and possibly HIV."
Before this potential treatment can be administered to people, it needs to show efficacy and safety in animal models. The findings are based on preliminary laboratory testing, and the study was conducted in vitro; however, the scientists hope to begin animal trials soon.