A New Head to the Genomic Beast That is CRISPR


Are contaminated CRISPR kits a new source for resistant organisms?

CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), also called CRISPR-Cas9, is a gene editing tool that allows researchers to target a specific site in the genetic code and edit the DNA. Sort of like a pair of scissors and a copy/paste tool, this technology allows scientists to permanently modify genes, which opens the door for treating genetic diseases while also raising ethical red flags.

What makes this gene editing tool such a hot topic, aside from its precision, is its ease of use and lack of cost. CRISPR makes gene editing significantly easier and do-it-yourself (DIY) kits are available to non-professional users (or “citizen scientists”) for $150. This means that the potential CRISPR do-it-yourself (DIY) biohacker can now be just about anyone, which leaves many worried.

Some say that CRISPR could allow nefarious actors to develop biological weapons or careless DIY biohackers to accidentally create or release dangerous organisms. On the other hand, some researchers are noting that it still requires a significant amount of scientific knowledge and the real risk is low. The debate on the risks versus rewards of CRISPR has been going on since the technology was first developed. Whichever side of the fence you stand on, the truth is that as biotechnology races forward, oversight and policy efforts are lagging in efforts to catch up.

Now that we have the basics covered, where does this leave us with the latest CRISPR news?

This week the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) made an announcement that drew attention to unanticipated and new risk for genome editing kits. Several countries in Europe recently found themselves responding to contaminated CRISPR kits. Although the kits—from the specific American supplier, The Odin—were meant to include a harmless laboratory strain of E. coli HME63, they were, in fact, contaminated with three organisms, including some that are drug-resistant.

The ECDC recently released their risk assessment, pointing to the detection of Klebsiella pneumoniae, Enterobacter spp. and Enterococcus faecalis. Despite this finding, The ECDC noted that the risk is low for users “because the manipulation of the kit does not involve percutaneous injury-prone manipulations. However, infection resulting from the contamination of broken skin or mucous membranes may occur, even though the kit recommends and provides disposable gloves.” Interestingly, as a result of the contamination that was first reported by the Bavarian Health and Safety Authority, Germany has halted imports of these CRISPR kits.

This latest news is especially concerning in that it brings to light not only the risk for contamination within the kits, but also that multi-drug resistant and ESBL-producing (Extended-spectrum β-lactamases) organisms have a new avenue into the population. Not only does resistant bacteria pose a risk to the kit user, but it can also persist in the environment and be transmitted through household contacts.

This incident also brings to light the concern that a skilled biohacker with the wrong intentions might make the already resistant organism more resistant or potentially more transmissible. Perhaps even worse (and not considered), the ECDC has implored users of the kit to properly dispose of their used materials to avoid additional contamination into the environment.

Will CRISPR kits be a new source for the spread of resistant organisms? This latest event with DIY kits points to a much broader realm of unknown risks that we may not even be considering. Current oversight efforts are struggling to keep up with the pace of biotech innovation and the risk of contamination only compounds the biosafety/biosecurity threats of garage gene editing.

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