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Engineering | School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering

Few discoveries in science have had the potential for medical impacts as dramatic as the gene-editing tool called CRISPR. Only about a decade after the discovery of the technique, it is being seen as a basis for developing treatments and cures for many diseases and other serious health problems.

An acronym for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, CRISPR’s abilities can be used to alter the genomes — the entire set of DNA instructions — in living organisms.

By repairing, disabling or otherwise modifying various genes, the technique has already been used to successfully treat diseases in animals, fight off viruses and prepare pig organs for use in transplants in humans, to name a few of its uses.

Researchers are also exploring multiple possibilities for the use of CRISPR to advance human health care, including refining of CRISPR methodologies and expanding its applications.

Recently, CRISPR has been used also to detect specific nucleic acids, which can enable the high-throughput simultaneous detection of many viruses. For example, by tweaking CRISPR, researchers have designed new rapid diagnostics for SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic.

CRISPR can also be engineered to visualize DNA and RNA molecules in living cells, allowing scientists to study the human genome and its regulation as biological processes are taking place in cells. This process, called live-cell genome imaging, also makes it possible to track these molecules as diseases emerge and progress.

A breakthrough in CRISPR-based imaging methods is detailed in a recently published paper in the research journal Nature Communications and a paper The CRISPR Journal.

Both papers report on research conducted in the Cheng Lab and led by principal investigator Albert Cheng. The headquarters of the project relocated in January of this year when Cheng moved from The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine to the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering, one of the seven Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, where he is now an associate professor.

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