Delaware Public Media

Gene editing tech CRISPR could be used to test for coronavirus and find who is most at-risk

May 13, 2020

Researchers at ChristianaCare are looking to see how a newly approved coronavirus test using CRISPR could be used in Delaware, as they hope to learn how a patient’s genetic makeup can affect how the patient reacts to COVID-19.

There’s been a wide variance in the severity of COVID-19 symptoms. Many have required hospitalization and died from the disease while many others have experienced no symptoms at all. Others still have had much less common immune reactions to the virus like the rare inflammatory syndrome recently found in some children.

Dr. Eric Kmiec is Director of the Gene Editing Institute at ChristianaCare's Helen F. Graham Cancer Center & Research Institute. He, and others, believe this could be due to the genetic makeup of the patients.

“It is possible for us to predict what types of people will be more susceptible?” asked Kmiec. “We know age and preconditions are absolute, and that is true, but now we’re seeing incredible variance among young people, millennials, even babies, and most of them don’t have preexisting conditions that we can define. We might be able to define a genetic preexisting condition that may not even be apparent to the patient.”   

Kmiec says his team will be starting a research project in partnership with Stanford University and a few biotech companies to learn the relationship between an individual’s genetic profile and how they respond to the virus.

He says the project will utilize CRISPR gene-editing technology developed at ChristianaCare to recreate genetic information on synthetic pieces of DNA on a chip.

This announcement comes as a new coronavirus test using CRISPR was fast-tracked through the approval process and ok’d by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) just last week.

The so-called “Sherlock test” utilizes the gene-editing technology to detect the genome of the virus, and yields results in a couple hours.

Kmiec says the folks at MIT recently sent the test over.

“We’ll be, sort of, working on it in the lab to see if there’s a place for it in the future of what we call the ‘long arch’ of testing here in Delaware,” he said. “The test has the ability to get to rural communities and hospitals that may not have such sophisticated instrumentation to carry out the tests that are currently on the market.”   

Delaware Medical Director Dr. Rick Hong couldn’t say for sure if the state will be investing in the Sherlock test. But he says Delaware is looking into that as well as other testing technology for potential future purchase.

“We appreciate our partners looking into other types of modalities, because I think we all need to work together on that,” said Hong.

Kmiec says that—though the price is subject to change—it appears the Sherlock test is less costly and requires less equipment than the qPCR tests currently being widely used. Be he adds Sherlock is rumored to be more sensitive and may run the risk of yielding more false positive results. 

CRISPR technology in still in the early stages of clinical use. The technology raised controversy when Chinese scientists used it to change the genetic makeup of babies in 2018. It was used in the U.S. to treat a patient with a genetic disorder for the first time last year.

Kmiec says the Sherlock test was likely streamlined through the FDA process because of CRISPR’s perceived future role in diagnostics.

“The application here is for diagnostics,” said Kmiec. “So in terms of the rest of our concerns about off-site changes and its use to create mutations in patients, or something like that, that is off the table here.”

Kmiec says ChristianaCare was already looking to move towards using CRISPR as tool to combat infectious diseases, but was pushed in that direction more quickly by the coronavirus outbreak.