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Gene-editing success promises prevention for inherited diseases

By Chukwuma Muanya, Assistant Editor
04 August 2017   |   3:38 am
Though gene-editing tools have the power to potentially cure a number of diseases, scientists have proceeded cautiously, in part to avoid introducing unintended mutations into the germ line (cells that become eggs or sperm).

Researchers have learned to avoid patchwork embryos by editing genes during fertilization instead of after. Previously, scientists fertilized eggs and then added the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editor (top row). Sometimes eggs had already copied DNA, and a mutant gene escaped editing (top, middle). That led to a patchwork, or mosaic, embryo with edited and unedited cells (top, right). Injecting CRISPR/Cas9 along with sperm (bottom row) repairs the mutation before DNA replicates, leading to an embryo with all healthy cells.Source: H. Ma et al/Nature 2017

Scientists have, for the first time, corrected a disease-causing mutation in early stage human embryos with gene editing. The technique, which uses the CRISPR-Cas9 system, corrected the mutation for a heart condition at the earliest stage of embryonic development so that the defect would not be passed on to future generations.

The work, which is described in Nature on August 2, 2017, is a collaboration between the Salk Institute, Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), United States (US), and Korea’s Institute for Basic Science and could pave the way for improved in vitro fertilization (IVF) outcomes as well as eventual cures for some of the thousands of diseases caused by mutations in single genes.

“Thanks to advances in stem cell technologies and gene editing, we are finally starting to address disease-causing mutations that impact potentially millions of people,” says Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, a professor in Salk’s Gene Expression Laboratory and a corresponding author of the paper. “Gene editing is still in its infancy so even though this preliminary effort was found to be safe and effective, it is crucial that we continue to proceed with the utmost caution, paying the highest attention to ethical considerations.”

Though gene-editing tools have the power to potentially cure a number of diseases, scientists have proceeded cautiously, in part to avoid introducing unintended mutations into the germ line (cells that become eggs or sperm). Izpisua Belmonte is uniquely qualified to speak to the ethics of genome editing in part because, as a member of the committee on human gene editing of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, he helped author the 2016 roadmap “Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and Governance.” The research in the current study is fully compliant with recommendations made in that document, and adheres closely to guidelines established by OHSU’s Institutional Review Board and additional ad-hoc committees set up for scientific and ethical review.

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) is the most common cause of sudden death in otherwise healthy young athletes, and affects approximately one in 500 people overall. It is caused by a dominant mutation in the MYBPC3 gene, but often goes undetected until it is too late. Since people with a mutant copy of the MYBPC3 gene have a 50 percent chance of passing it on to their own children, being able to correct the mutation in embryos would prevent the disease not only in affected children, but also in their descendants.

The researchers generated induced pluripotent stem cells from a skin biopsy donated by a male with HCM and developed a gene-editing strategy based on CRISPR-Cas9 that would specifically target the mutated copy of the MYBPC3 gene for repair.

The targeted mutated MYBPC3 gene was cut by the Cas9 enzyme, allowing the donor’s cells’ own Deoxy ribonucleic Acid (DNA)/genetic material-repair mechanisms to fix the mutation during the next round of cell division by using either a synthetic DNA sequence or the non-mutated copy of MYBPC3 gene as a template.

Using IVF techniques, the researchers injected the best-performing gene-editing components into healthy donor eggs newly fertilized with the donor’s sperm. Then they analyzed all the cells in the early embryos at single-cell resolution to see how effectively the mutation was repaired.

The scientists were surprised by just how safe and efficient the method was. Not only did a high percentage of embryonic cells get repaired, but also gene correction didn’t induce any detectable off-target mutations and genome instability — major concerns for gene editing. In addition, the researchers developed a robust strategy to ensure the repair occurred consistently in all the cells of the embryo. (Spotty repairs can lead to some cells continuing to carry the mutation.)

“Even though the success rate in patient cells cultured in a dish was low, we saw that the gene correction seems to be very robust in embryos of which one copy of the MYBPC3 gene is mutated,” says Jun Wu, a Salk staff scientist and one of the paper’s first authors. This was in part because, after CRISPR-Cas9 mediated enzymatic cutting of the mutated gene copy, the embryo initiated its own repairs. Instead of using the provided synthetic DNA template, the team found, surprisingly, that the embryo preferentially used the available healthy copy of the gene to repair the mutated part. “Our technology successfully repairs the disease-causing gene mutation by taking advantage of a DNA repair response unique to early embryos” says Wu.

Izpisua Belmonte and Wu emphasize that, although promising, these are very preliminary results and more research will need to be done to ensure no unintended effects occur.

“Our results demonstrate the great potential of embryonic gene editing, but we must continue to realistically assess the risks as well as the benefits,” adds Izpisua Belmonte.

Future work will continue to assess the safety and effectiveness of the procedure and efficacy of the technique with other mutations. Also, for the first time in the United States, researchers have used gene editing to repair a mutation in human embryos.

Molecular scissors known as CRISPR/Cas9 corrected a gene defect that can lead to heart failure. The gene editor fixed the mutation in about 72 percent of tested embryos, researchers report August 2 in Nature. That repair rate is much higher than expected. Work with skin cells reprogrammed to mimic embryos had suggested the mutation would be repaired in fewer than 30 percent of cells.

In addition, the researchers discovered a technical advance that may limit the production of patchwork embryos that aren’t fully edited. That’s important if CRISPR/Cas9 will ever be used to prevent genetic diseases, says study coauthor Shoukhrat Mitalipov, a reproductive and developmental biologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. If even one cell in an early embryo is unedited, “that’s going to screw up the whole process,” says Mitalipov. He worked with colleagues in Oregon, California, Korea and China to develop the embryo-editing methods.

Researchers in other countries have edited human embryos to learn more about early human development or to answer other basic research questions. But Mitalipov and colleagues explicitly conducted the experiments to improve the safety and efficiency of gene editing for eventual clinical trials, which would involve implanting edited embryos into women’s uteruses to establish pregnancy.

In the United States, such clinical trials are effectively banned by a rule that prevents the Food and Drug Administration from reviewing applications for any procedure that would introduce heritable changes in human embryos. Such tinkering with embryo Deoxyribo Nucleic Acid (DNA)/genetic material, called germline editing, is controversial because of fears that the technology will be used to create so-called designer babies.

“This paper is not announcing the dawn of the designer baby era,” says R. Alta Charo, a lawyer and bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin Law School in Madison. The researchers have not attempted to add any new genes or change traits, only to correct a disease-causing version of a gene.

In the study, sperm from a man who carries a mutation in the MYBPC3 gene was injected into eggs from women with healthy copies of that gene. Carrying just one mutant copy of the gene causes an inherited heart problem called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. That condition, which strikes about one in every 500 people worldwide, can cause sudden heart failure. Mutations in the MYBPC3 gene are responsible for about 40 percent of cases. Doctors can treat symptoms of the condition, but there is no cure.

Along with the man’s sperm, researchers injected into the egg the DNA-cutting enzyme Cas9 and a piece of RNA to direct the enzyme to snip the mutant copy of the gene. Another piece of DNA was also injected into the egg. That hunk of DNA was supposed to be a template that the fertilized egg could use to repair the breach made by Cas9. Instead, embryos used the mother’s healthy copy of the gene to repair the cut.

Embryos’ self-healing DNA came as a surprise, because gene editing in other types of cells usually requires an external template, Mitalipov says. The discovery could mean that it will be difficult for researchers to fix mutations in embryos if neither parent has a healthy copy of the gene. But the finding could be good news for those concerned about designer babies, because embryos may reject attempts to add new traits.

Timing the addition of CRISPR/Cas9 is important, the researchers also discovered. In their first experiments, the team added the gene editor a day after fertilizing the eggs. Of 54 injected embryos, 13 were patchwork, or mosaic, embryos with some repaired and some unrepaired cells. Such mosaic embryos probably arise when the fertilized egg copies its DNA before researchers add Cas9, Mitalipov says.

Injecting Cas9 along with the sperm — before an egg had a chance to replicate its DNA — produced only one patchwork embryo. That embryo had repaired the mutation in all its cells, but some cells used the mother’s DNA for repair while others used the template supplied by the researchers.

None of the tested embryos showed any signs that Cas9 was cutting where it shouldn’t be. “Off-target” cutting has been a safety concern with the gene editor because of the possibility of creating new DNA errors.

The study makes progress toward using gene editing to prevent genetic diseases, but there’s still has a long way to go before clinical testing can begin, says Janet Rossant, a developmental biologist at the Hospital for Sick Children and the University of Toronto. “We need to be sure this can be done reproducibly and effectively.”

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