We all know the importance of the black box flight data recorders inside airplanes. But what if we had a “black box” for the human body?
That could be the next job for the gene-splicing technology known as CRISPR.
The well-publicized high-tech tool allows scientists to virtually cut and paste DNA strands, effectively modifying the genetic code of a living thing.
While genetic modification is nothing new, CRISPR technology makes it significantly easier to encode and alter the blueprints of living things.
“CRISPR components are proving to be not just tools for studying and correcting genetic changes associated with disease, but also a broad platform for many other applications that illuminate cells and the molecular processes that underlie life,” David R. Liu, professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard University, told Healthline.
The next frontier of CRISPR research, though, takes a different route.
Rather than editing genes, scientists such as Liu are exploring the potential of CRISPR as a tool to give scientists a snapshot of the processes happening inside a cell, as well as recording the data for analysis.
Liu and Weixin Tang, a postdoctoral fellow in Harvard’s chemistry and chemical biology department, published their research earlier this month in the journal Science.
They unveiled what they call a CRISPR-mediated analog multievent recording apparatus, or CAMERA for short.
Think of it like an airplane’s black box, but for the human body.
Instead of relying on real-time observation, the process creates a record of activities at the cellular level for health professionals to analyze at their leisure.
More than just a snapshot
Prior research, notably by Timothy Lu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), demonstrated CRISPR’s utility in recording devices for bacterial cells.
But the Harvard team’s tool, CAMERA, was successfully tested in proof-of-concept experiments on both bacterial and human cells.
The experiments demonstrated the process’s ability to use CRISPR components to record the ways that cells respond to external stimuli as well as internal molecular events.
“I don’t think of CAMERA as an improvement on [Lu’s work], but rather a complementary approach,” Liu noted.
Like a tape or a hard drive, CAMERA’s technology allows it to record, erase, and rerecord the activity it detects.
Liu adds that his team has performed three record-erase cycles with CAMERA, with “very little” erosion of writing or erasing capability.
But Liu cautions that, while the technology is promising, it’ll likely be some time before it reaches its full potential.
“The CAMERA systems are likely to be first used in research settings to illuminate cellular processes and signaling events,” he explained. “In principle, one might eventually use CAMERA-like systems to record changes in a patient’s cells, but such an application would require quite a lot (years) of additional development work.”
Early days but big potential
Technologies that utilize the insights provided by CRISPR, such as the CAMERA system, promise to give researchers and health professionals a better look at what’s happening in the DNA of living things.
A different research team, headed by biochemist Jennifer Doudna at the University of California at Berkeley, recently unveiled a new method, dubbed DETECTR, that utilizes CRISPR to identify and sniff out portions of DNA that could warn about the future potential of defective genes, infections, or even cancers.
But it’s still early days for CRISPR and its related technologies.
Scientific understanding of CRISPR itself only goes back about three decades. The acronym for CRISPR was only developed in 2001.
While it may be some time before family doctors are utilizing CRISPR in their practices, the potential of the technology is encouraging.
Liu says his team is working on using the CAMERA systems to seek out new insights about the activities that take place in stem cells when they change states.
“We, and other labs, are currently in the process of using the CAMERA system to study cell signalling during differentiation and other events marked by dramatic changes in cell states,” he explained.