Honorary lecturer Feng Zhang: CRISPR research – a treasure hunt in nature
First published: 2019-05-26
Listen to the interview and hear more about why Feng Zhang wants to introduce a moratorium on genetically-modified babies and where Malin Parmar hopes her stem cell research will lead. They also give advice to younger researchers, as well as explaining why it is important to make their research accessible to the general public. The whole interview with Feng Zhang and Malin Parmar is available here.
In his lecture, Feng Zhang talked about how his interest in genes began in secondary school during an extra Saturday class the school had organised. There, Feng Zhang was given an insight into the advances taking place with DNA and gene therapy which sparked his interest (and he also got to see the film Jurassic Park). That he would later conduct pioneering work on CRISPR-Cas9, popularly known as gene scissors, was not something many people could have predicted back then. However, he has maintained his enthusiasm for genes.
“Gene editing is fascinating since it has such broad applications; within research, medicine, and agriculture. The technology has the potential to repair mutations so we can improve people’s health. There is even potential to improve crops to make it possible to feed more people in the world”, he says.
With Feng’s method, researchers can now make changes to the genome faster, cheaper and on a much larger scale – and in this way address more significant issues.
Feng Zhang and his research group at MIT in Boston have continued to develop CRISPR, among other things by using the protein Cas13. Now they are also developing a virus and bacteria diagnostic test strip with the help of the technology.
“One of the CRISPR systems we have found is called Cas13. It is a protein we have discovered that can be used for a fast, cost effective, and sensitive test for different viral infections, but also for bacterial infections.”
The idea is for the test to be used much like a pregnancy test. You would take a paper strip containing the protein Cas13 and an indicator that together with blood plasma or urine creates two lines on the paper if the test is positive for the virus, but one line when the virus is not detected.
This kind of research is like going on a treasure hunt in nature, says Feng Zhang.
“One thing that is exciting about CRISPR is that it came from nature. Bacteria have used this system, probably for millions of years, to defend themselves against viruses. There are many bacteria and they have all developed powerful ways to defend themselves. They survive in hot springs, in the stratosphere or in Antarctica. By learning about these mechanisms and understanding how they work we gain knowledge to produce new technologies that can improve people’s lives.”
While the CRISPR technology has created opportunities, it comes with several challenges. In the middle of March, the week after he visited Lund University, Feng Zhang together with other researchers published a call for a moratorium on the genetic modification of human embryos in Nature (link: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00726-5).
Feng Zhang insists society is not yet ready for the technology to be used in this way.
“Today, there are many questions to which we do not have answers. We cannot be 100 percent sure what the result will be – the research just simply is not there yet. There are many biological processes we do not fully understand and if we go in and change something, we do not know the impact it may have on the rest of the body’s systems.”
“To use genetics to treat diseases is one thing. However, serious ethical issues arise if we use genetic modification to improve people. I therefore believe a ban is necessary. We should not use this to genetically modify human embryos that then lead to genetically modified babies. Instead, we need to engage wider society in this conversation.”
We met with Feng Zhang and Malin Parmar, professor and stem cell researcher at Lund University, in connection with Feng Zhang’s honorary lecture. Both are Robertson Investigators at New York Stem Cell Foundation which finances and builds networks between stem cell researchers from all over the world.
“It is great that Feng has now come to Lund to share his research. He is a real pioneer and the methods he has developed are already used broadly within the research here in Lund. It is very inspirational to hear him talk about his research and particularly exciting that young researchers here in Lund could present such good data produced with the help of CRISPR technology.”
Read more about Feng Zhang’s research here: https://zlab.bio/
CRISPR explained with “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”:
Feng Zhang uses the well-known children’s song Twinkle, twinkle, little star (link: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x6d7cd4), to describe how CRISPR differs from other gene editing technologies. Imagine there is a typo in the song and it says Twinkle, twinkle BIG star – and you want to correct the error. CRISPR is like an editing program that can correct those kinds of errors in our genes. You can either remove the incorrect work ‘big’ (so it becomes Twinkle, twinkle, _____ star) or add the word ‘little’ (Twinkle, twinkle, little big star). With the help of CRISPR/Cas9 you can access the document and find the incorrect word ‘big’.
“Then, Cas9 cuts out the word ‘big’ and by providing the cell with a template for the word ‘little’ the cell can repair the DNA break itself with the new repaired sequence”, explains Feng Zhang in the video clip.