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Crop Biotech Update

CRISPR Technique 90% Effective in Reducing SARS-CoV-2 Coronavirus

June 10, 2020
Lipitoids, which self-assemble with DNA and RNA, can serve as cellular delivery systems for antiviral therapies that could prevent COVID-19 and other coronavirus infections. (Illustration courtesy of R.N. Zuckermann and Berkeley Lab)

Scientists from Stanford University and the Molecular Foundry at the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) are working to develop a gene-targeting, antiviral agent against COVID-19. Last year, Stanford University Assistant Professor Stanley Qi began working on a technique called PAC-MAN - or Prophylactic Antiviral CRISPR in human cells - that uses the gene editing tool CRISPR to fight influenza. When news of COVID-19 pandemic emerged, Qi and his team thought to try PAC-MAN technology to fight the disease.

PAC-MAN is composed of an enzyme - in this case, the virus-killing enzyme Cas13 - and a strand of guide RNA, which commands Cas13 to destroy specific nucleotide sequences in the coronavirus's genome. By scrambling the virus's genetic code, PAC-MAN could neutralize the coronavirus and stop it from replicating inside cells. However, Qi said that the key challenge to translating PAC-MAN from a molecular tool into an anti-COVID-19 therapy is finding an effective way to deliver it into lung cells.

Researchers at the Molecular Foundry led by Michael Connolly are working on synthetic molecules called lipitoids, a synthetic peptide mimic known as peptoid that are effective in the delivery of DNA and RNA to a wide variety of cell lines. Lipitoids are non-toxic to the body and can deliver nucleotides by encapsulating them in tiny nanoparticles the size of a virus. The Lipitoid 1 tested by the Stanford team in late April performed well. When packaged with coronavirus-targeting PAC-MAN, the system reduced the amount of synthetic SARS-CoV-2 in solution by more than 90%. The team next plans to test the system against a live SARS-CoV-2 virus.

For more details, read the article in Berkeley Lab News Center.

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