Gene-Editing Technology may Replace Antibiotics in the Future

Doctors and researchers are in a race against the clock to find new antibiotics and alternatives to antibiotics as the problem of drug-resistance worsens and spreads. One bacterial superbug in particular which has researchers especially worried is Clostridium difficile, or C. difficile – a bacterium which can cause fatal infections in hospitals and nursing homes. Scientists are now working on a “pill” that uses CRISPR gene-editing technology to kill the harmful bacteria. [1]

Considered a probiotic, the technology is still in its infancy and is yet to be tested on animals. Jan-Peter van Pijkeren, a food scientist from the University of Wisconsin-Madison who is the creator of the CRISPR pill (which could also be given in liquid form), says:

“The downside of antibiotics is they are a sledgehammer that depletes and destroys the gut microbial community. You want to instead use a scalpel in order to specifically eradicate the microbe of interest.”

The idea behind using CRISPR to defeat antibiotic-resistant bacteria is that it could kill a single species of germ while leaving the beneficial bacteria unharmed.

Herbert DuPont, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases at the University of Texas, says:

“As long as we house patients together in a hospital or in a nursing home and we give a lot of them antibiotics we’re going to have a problem with C. difficile.”

Here’s how it works:

  • Van Pijkeren plans to create a virus that can carry a customized CRISPR message into the body via the probiotic liquid or pill.
  • When it passes into the intestinal tract, the virus would exit and infect the C. difficile.
  • The “message” in the pill then causes the bacteria to self-destruct. [2]

The Technology Doesn’t Come Without Worry

Though some are excited about such advancements, there are some inherent risks in using CRISPR-Cas9 technology to edit the human genome, or other living organisms that interact with the human body and our ecosystems at large. Gang Bao, a professor of bioengineering at Rice University, explains that unwanted gene edits, called off-target effects, “could influence the function of many genes, possibly posing serious health problems.”

Bao adds:

“In the germline, off-target effects might persist for generations and could lead to long-term changes in the genome.”

The so-called CRISPR pill that researchers are now championing would be designed to leave “good” bacteria untouched. So far, there has been no mention of the risks associated with the technology but that doesn’t mean scientists aren’t concerned.

Unless (or until) we encounter serious issues concerning CRISPR technology on a larger scale, it seems that this advancement in science is continuing at full speed, so it is essential that we consider all the possibilities and weigh the risks and potential benefits properly. Hopefully we’ll take more precautions than we did with speedily approving genetically modified foods, as any change of this scale requires in-depth controlled research, analysis, and most of all, time.

Sources:

[1] Futurism

[2] Digital Trends


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