Discussing the Future of Gene Editing at CRISPRcon Midwest

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Walking in to the first session at CRISPRcon Midwest.

Last week, a diverse group of stakeholders attended CRISPRcon Midwest, hosted by the Keystone Policy Center and the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The goal of the day-long conference was to emphasize the importance and value of gene editing technology, and how it must be communicated deliberately between scientists, the public, policymakers, and other stakeholders.

Julie Shapiro, Senior Policy Director of Keystone Policy Center, acted as Emcee for the event. Given the diverse group of attendees, she mentioned in her opening remarks that the event organizers were “seeking conversation, not consensus” and emphasized the “power of respectful dialogue.” A slide overhead showcased the ground rules for the day, which included statements such as “dare to listen, dare to share, and dare to disagree.”

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Word cloud generated from live polling results at CRISPRcon Midwest.

CRISPRcon aimed to included voices beyond those represented by keynote speakers and panelists, so they incorporated live polling through an online app to keep the audience engaged and an active participant in the conversations throughout the day. From the opening remarks, it was clear that this conference would not just deliver on its promise of thoughtful conversation about the science, but build further understanding about the societal impacts of a rapidly advancing technology.

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All You Need is a Tether: Improving Repair Efficiency for CRISPR-Cas9 Gene Editing

Ribonucleoprotein complex with Cas9, guide RNA and donor ssDNA. Copyright Promega Corporation.

With the advent of genome editing using CRISPR-Cas9, researchers have been excited by the possibilities of precisely placed edits in cellular DNA. Any double-stranded break in DNA, like that induced by CRISPR-Cas9, is repaired by one of two pathways: Non-homologous end joining (NHEJ) or homology-directed repair (HDR). Using the NHEJ pathway results in short insertions or deletions (indels) at the break site, so the HDR pathway is preferred. However, the low efficiency of HDR recombination to insert exogenous sequences into the genome hampers its use. There have been many attempts at boosting HDR frequency, but the methods compromise cell growth and behave differently when used with various cell types and gene targets. The strategy employed by the authors of an article in Communications Biology tethered the DNA donor template to Cas9 complexed with the ribonucleoprotein and guide RNA, increasing the local concentration of the donor template at the break site and enhancing homology-directed repair. Continue reading “All You Need is a Tether: Improving Repair Efficiency for CRISPR-Cas9 Gene Editing”

NLRP3: The New Hope for Treating Chronic Inflammatory Diseases

Our innate immune system was meant to do good. Up until a century ago, most humans died from infectious diseases like diarrhea, tuberculosis and meningitis. Over millions of years, our immune system has evolved to fight these life-threatening infections from pathogens. As a result, we have developed a highly efficient response to these tiny invaders. But it seems that our immune system may be turning against us.

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Striking Fear into the Heart of Cardiovascular Disease Using Zebrafish and NanoLuc® Luciferase

Representative images of ApoB-LP localization in zebrafish across developmental, genetic, pharmacological and dietary manipulations.
Credit: Figure 5.D of The LipoGlo reporter system for sensitive and specific monitoring of atherogenic lipoproteins by James Thierer, Stephen C. Ekker and Steven A. Farber.
Article licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Cardiovascular diseases, or CVDs, are collectively the most notorious gang of cold-blooded killers threatening human lives today. These unforgiving villains, including the likes of coronary heart disease, cerebrovascular disease and pulmonary embolisms, are jointly responsible for more deaths per year than any other source, securing their seat as the number one cause of human mortality on a global scale.

One of the trademarks of most CVDs is the thickening and stiffening of the arteries, a condition known as atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is characterized by the accumulation of cholesterol, fats and other substances, which together form plaques in and on the artery walls. These plaques clog or narrow your arteries until they completely block the flow of blood, and can no longer supply sufficient blood to your tissues and organs. Or the plaques can burst, setting off a disastrous chain reaction that begins with a blood clot, and often ends with a heart attack or stroke.

Given the global prevalence and magnitude of this problem, there is a significant and urgent demand for better ways to treat CVDs. In a recent study published in Nature Communications, researchers at the Carnegie Institution for Science, Johns Hopkins University and Mayo Clinic are taking the fight to CVDs through the study of low-density lipoproteins (LDLs), the particles responsible for shuttling bad cholesterol throughout the bloodstream.

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I Have My Luciferase Vector, Now What?

Choosing and Optimizing Transfection Methods

Here in Technical Services we often talk with researchers at the beginning of their project about how to carefully design and get started with their experiments. It is exciting when you have selected the Luciferase Reporter Vector(s) that will best suit your needs; you are going to make luminescent cells! But, how do you pick the best way to get the vector into your cells to express the reporter? What transfection reagent/method will work best for your cell type and experiment? Do you want to do transient (short-term) transfections, or are you going to establish a stable cell line?

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Prions Go Slow with ASOs: Experimental Treatment for ALS, Alzheimer’s and Other Prion-like Diseases

In the late-80’s through the 90’s, food and health agencies focused on a mysterious fatal brain disease that infected thousands of cattle. Bovine spongiform encephalitis—or “mad cow disease”—is caused by an infectious protein called a prion. Despite fears that tainted meat would cause the disease to spread to humans, mad cow disease never really made an impact on human health. However, forms of the prion disease such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease do affect humans.

In addition to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, many neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease) are now thought to be a result of prion-like activity. There is no cure for these diseases, however, new experimental treatment strategies might help slow the progression of neural degeneration.

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The tell-tale “holes” of prion infection in brain tissue.
Continue reading “Prions Go Slow with ASOs: Experimental Treatment for ALS, Alzheimer’s and Other Prion-like Diseases”

Immunotherapy—Don’t Forget the Microbiome

Bacteria make you sick. The idea that bacteria cause illness has become ingrained in modern society, made evident by every sign requiring employees to wash their hands before leaving a restroom and the frequent food recalls resulting from pathogens like E. coli. But a parallel idea has also taken hold. As microbiome research continues to reveal the important role that bacteria play in human health, we’re starting to see the ways that the microbiota of the human body may be as important as our genes or environment.

The story of how our microbiome affects our health continues to get more complex. For example, researchers are now beginning to understand that the composition of bacteria residing in your body can significantly impact the effects of therapeutic drugs. This is a new factor for optimizing drug response, compared to other considerations such as diet, interaction with other drugs, administration time and comorbidity, which have been understood much longer.

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Brazilian University Swatting at Leishmaniasis Parasite

The Medicinal Chemistry Center (CQMED), headquartered at Campinas State University in Brazil, recently started a project in partnership with Promega to develop drugs that can be used against Leishmania. This genus of protozoans is the etiological agent of leishmaniasis, transmitted to humans by sandflies.

Microscopic image of Leishmania parasite
Microscopic image of Leishmania tropica. Credit: Brian E. Keas at Michigan State University.

Leishmaniasis is classified as a neglected tropical disease that mainly affects poor communities. Symptoms include large skin sores and an enlarged spleen. The challenge in developing drugs to treat Leishmania is finding appropriate therapeutic targets. These targets are normally proteins whose inhibition leads to death of the parasite. In addition to pharmaceutical company Eurofarma, whose goal is to develop drugs for Leishmania, Promega was chosen to help solve this problem because of our NanoBRET™ Target Engagement (TE) assay*, a well-established technique for measuring protein interactions. In this assay, NanoLuc® luciferase is attached to the protein of interest, and a fluorescent NanoBRET™ tracer molecule is added to the cells. This produces a BRET signal. When a competing ligand is added, it will displace the tracer molecule, enabling quantification of the strength of the interaction compared to the tracer molecule..

A challenge that researchers will face will be ensuring that the NanoBRET™ tracer reaches the inside of the parasite cells; because Leishmania is an intracellular parasite, molecules need to cross the host cell membrane, the membrane of the vacuole containing the parasites, and the membrane of the parasite itself. Another challenge the slow reproduction of Leishmania within macrophages. On top of that is the fact that the parasite’s metabolism varies depending on its biological cycle, meaning that there could be long periods of time during which a drug’s therapeutic target is not expressed in the cell, during which time the drug would have no effect. The ideal target would be expressed at high levels throughout the cell cycle.

The project is being led by Rafael Couñago, a researcher at CQMED, and Promega scientists Matt Robers and Jean-Luc Vaillaud.

*An earlier version of this blog incorrectly said that these experiments are based on the NanoBRET™ assay using HaloTag® protein.

CRISPR/Cas9, NanoBRET and GPCRs: A Bright Future for Drug Discovery

GPCRs

G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) are a large family of receptors that traverse the cell membrane seven times. Functionally, GPCRs are extremely diverse, yet they contain highly conserved structural regions. GPCRs respond to a variety of signals, from small molecules to peptides and large proteins. Many GPCRs are involved in disease pathways and, not surprisingly, they present attractive targets for both small-molecule and biologic drugs.

In response to a signal, GPCRs undergo a conformational change, triggering an interaction with a G protein—a specialized protein that binds GDP in its inactive state or GTP when activated. Typically, the GPCR exchanges the G protein-bound GDP molecule for a GTP molecule, causing the activated G protein to dissociate into two subunits that remain anchored to the cell membrane. These subunits relay the signal to various other proteins that interact with or produce second-messenger molecules. Activation of a single G protein can result, ultimately, in the generation of thousands of second messengers.

Given the complexity of GPCR signaling pathways and their importance to human health, a considerable amount of research has been devoted to GPCR interactions, both with specific ligands and G proteins. Continue reading “CRISPR/Cas9, NanoBRET and GPCRs: A Bright Future for Drug Discovery”

Psychedelics as Therapeutic Agents: Current Research, Potential Benefits

This past May (2019) the symposium “Psychedelic Therapy in Society: Exploring the Mechanisms of Action and Delivery of Care” was hosted by the International Forum on Consciousness at the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center on the Promega Madison Campus.

Having the good fortune to work across the street at Promega, I was able to attend this two-day conference and learn from leading researchers in psychedelics and about their use in therapy.

My interest in psychedelics is relatively new. I didn’t experiment with these substances during high school or college years. But in recent years, I’ve seen a close relative struggle with profound anxiety related to terminal disease, and another with substance abuse and depression. The lessons learned from each experience is that the battery of medicines used to treat such illness can result in additional problems for which there are currently not good medication options. And in some cases, traditional medications can cause further health problems. Continue reading “Psychedelics as Therapeutic Agents: Current Research, Potential Benefits”