A new biotech company founded by CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna is developing a device that detects all children of diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and Zika with CRISPR. The technology is still in the prototype phase, but research in this area is showing promising results. These CRISPR-based diagnostic tools have the potential to revolutionize the way we test for disease in the hospital or even at home.
Called Mammoth Biosciences, the company is working on a credit card paper test and smartphone app combination for disease detection. But the uses go beyond that: The same technology could be used in agriculture to determine what makes animals sick or what types of microbes are found in the soil or even in the oil and gas industry to detect corrosive microbes in pipelines, says Trevor Martin, the CEO of Mammoth Biosciences, a PhD in biology from Stanford University. However, the company is initially focusing on applications for human health.
"We've gotten so far technologically, but still there are all these barriers between us and access to our understanding of our health and our bodies and the environment around us," says Martin The Verge , "This is the kind of technology that really breaks down these barriers and democratizes access to this kind of molecular information about the world around us."
At the heart of what Mammoth Biosciences does is CRISPR, a tool that makes headlines for its ability to precisely process DNA. The technology uses a mechanism that occurs in nature: Bacteria use CRISPR to defend themselves against viruses, to cut parts of their DNA and to insert them elsewhere. Scientists have developed this system to alter disease-causing genes ̵
But CRISPR is not just a gene editing tool. "When I think of CRISPR, I really think about the search engine of biology," says Martin. CRISPR can search for precise bits of genetic code, and so it can be engineered to recognize a genetic sequence that belongs to a particular virus like Zika. In combination with special enzymes, CRISPR can be made into a precise diagnostic tool.
Earlier this year, researchers showed that CRISPR can detect Zika, dengue and HPV virus as well as harmful bacteria and cancer mutations in human blood, urine and saliva. These tools, developed by the laboratories of the two CRISPR pioneers Doudna at UC Berkeley and Feng Zhang at MIT, combine CRISPR with enzymes such as Cas12a and Cas13a. These systems allow CRISPR to detect specific DNA or RNA, another major biological molecule, and then cut off a "reporter molecule" that releases a fluorescent signal. The idea is that when a person's cells are infected or have a certain cancerous mutation, the doctors can see the signal and quickly diagnose the disease. Martin says that Mammoth Biosciences is interested in both its Cas12a and Cas13a diagnostic tools and licenses its technology from UC Berkeley. Zhang's team at MIT is also developing a CRISPR paper test called SHERLOCK, but is not involved in Mammoth Biosciences, and Martin says he can not comment on their work. But he adds: "We are always excited when the potential of CRISPR is further strengthened." (Doudna and Zhang have been involved in a CRISPR patent dispute for years.)
The tech would work like a pregnancy test – Apart from not using urine to tell you if you're pregnant, it can be urine, blood or use saliva to tell you if you have a sexually transmitted infection or a specific flu. (The test could detect several diseases at once, says Martin.) The fluorescence signal or the color change in the paper test would be analyzed with a smartphone app. You take a picture of the results and the app tells you what you tested positive. At least that's the idea.
The company has some "working prototypes," says Martin. "We will quickly commercialize it and make it available in the next few years." Martin will not say how much the tests will cost at home, but the technology will be "accessible and affordable," he says.
As for the name of the company? It's a "cheeky game" to the idea that CRISPR could be used – at least in theory – to bring back extinct species like mammoths. Scientists at Harvard are working on it, but Martin says that Mammoth Biosciences is not interested in extinction, at least for now. "We do not have that at this time," he says.