ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Scientists have invented a new way to edit DNA. It appears to make it even easier to alter genes in a safe manner. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has the details.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: The gene-editing technique called CRISPR is already revolutionizing scientific research by letting scientists make very precise changes in genes in ways they'd only dreamed of before. But David Liu at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass., says even that powerful microscopic genetic tool, a kind of scissors, has limitations.
DAVID LIU: It's proven difficult to use these molecular scissors to make precise DNA changes in most cell types.
STEIN: Like brain cells and muscle cells. And CRISPR slices both strands of the DNA double helix, which can cause mistakes. So Liu's team invented a new kind of gene editing, a technique they call prime editors.
LIU: Prime editors are more like word processors capable of searching for target DNA sequences and precisely replacing them with edited DNA strands.
STEIN: Liu says he's already shown that his prime editors can efficiently edit the DNA of human cells in the lab, including fixing genetic mutations that cause terrible diseases like sickle cell and Tay-Sachs.
LIU: Prime editing is really a step, and potentially a significant step, towards this long-term aspiration of the field in which we are trying to be able to make just about any kind of DNA change that one wants at just about any site in the human genome.
STEIN: Other researchers agree.
FYODOR URNOV: It is a moment to stand up and cheer.
STEIN: Fyodor Urnov is a geneticist at the University of California, Berkeley.
URNOV: For gene editors, this feels a little bit like a new Avenger has joined our team, someone who brings a superpower that is needed for the field. Exciting would be an understatement.
STEIN: Urnov hopes prime editing will enable scientists to fix mutations that cause diseases that CRISPR can't.
URNOV: If you think about CRISPR as flight, so in that regard, CRISPR broadly, in gene editing, would be like a plane. Then this new invention is kind of like a helicopter. You know, it also flies and gets you from Point A to Point B. But there are specific settings, like precisely landing at the top of the Salesforce Tower here in San Francisco, where you could imagine the helicopter would be better than a plane. This new technique could get you to places you couldn't get to before and do so with more precision than conventional flight.
STEIN: Now, Liu and Urnov stress that a lot more research is needed to really know how well prime editing works, and scientists and regulators have to make sure that it isn't misused.
Rob Stein, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.