CRISPR-based rapid, inexpensive diagnostic tool created

This technology could one day be used to respond to viral and bacterial outbreaks, monitor antibiotic resistance, and detect cancer, researchers said.\

PTI| Last Updated: Apr 15, 2017, 00:48 AM IST

Boston: Scientists have developed a rapid, inexpensive and highly sensitive diagnostic tool, based on the gene editing tool CRISPR, with the potential for a transformative effect on research and global public health.

RNA-targeting CRISPR enzyme was harnessed as a highly sensitive detector - able to indicate the presence of as little as a single molecule of a target RNA or DNA molecule.

Researchers, including those from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University in the US, dubbed the new tool SHERLOCK (Specific High-sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter unLOCKing).

This technology could one day be used to respond to viral and bacterial outbreaks, monitor antibiotic resistance, and detect cancer, researchers said.

They demonstrated the method's versatility on a range of applications.

They detected the presence of Zika virus in patient blood or urine samples within hours.

They also were able to distinguish between the genetic sequences of African and American strains of Zika virus and discriminating specific types of bacteria, such as E coli.

Researchers used the method to detect antibiotic resistance genes and identifying cancerous mutations in simulated cell-free DNA fragments.

Because the tool can be designed for use as a paper-based test that does not require refrigeration, the researchers said it is well suited for fast deployment and widespread use inside and outside of traditional settings - such as at a field hospital during an outbreak, or a rural clinic with limited access to advanced equipment.

"We can now effectively and readily make sensors for any nucleic acid, which is incredibly powerful when you think of diagnostics and research applications," said Jim Collins, Professor of Bioengineering at MIT.

This tool offers the sensitivity that could detect an extremely small amount of cancer DNA in a patient's blood sample, for example, which would help researchers understand how cancer mutates over time.

"For public health, it could help researchers monitor the frequency of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in a population. The scientific possibilities get very exciting very quickly," said Collins.