Your Diabetes Care May Someday Involve CRISPR

Anyone keeping tabs on breakthroughs in diabetes treatment will eventually run across research that involves CRISPER.

Numerous CRISPR projects designed to alleviate or cure diseases, including diabetes, are underway. Some of the research is promising, but CRISPR involves gene editing—a process not everyone is comfortable with.

About CRISPR

We can think of the DNA sequences on our genes as text messages that guide the formation and functioning of our body. Gene editing involves deleting part of the existing text, and inserting a new message. CRISPR is a way to do that.

CRISPR (pronounced crisper) is actually short for CRISPR-Cas9. CRISPRs are specialized regions of our DNA containing repetitive “text” or code sequences. Scientists call these sequences “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.” Cas9 is a protein that works like microscopic scissors. It cuts-out unwanted strands of DNA so new “text” sequences can be inserted.

By using CRISPR to change some of our genetic codes, scientists believe it may be possible to treat diabetes without drugs, or even to cure it.

CRISPR and Diabetes

Though current CRISPR studies are confined to laboratories, the outcomes related to diabetes are remarkable:

  • At the University of Chicago, researchers used CRISPR to insert a genetic code for GLP1 into a skin graft. GLP1 is a hormone that stimulates insulin secretion in the pancreas. When placed on mice, the genetically modified skin grafts protected the animals from diabetes, and from the weight gain associated with type 2 diabetes. For humans, similar skin grafts may someday become long-lasting insulin shot replacements.
  • In a Swedish laboratory, CRISPR investigators removed the genetic code for a group of enzymes that were over-active in the diabetic cells of rats. They replaced the code with a new one that controlled the enzymes. This led to reduced beta cell death in the pancreas, and better insulin production.
  • Scientists in Australia are determining whether CRISPR can be used to identify the rogue immune cells that destroy pancreatic beta cells, causing type 1 diabetes.

Though these study outcomes are encouraging, CRISPR technology is still considered in early stages; human trials may be a ways off. There is also considerable controversy over the use of this technology.

CRISPR Concerns

Beside the ethical concerns about tampering with our genes, some CRISPR controversy has to do with “off-target effects.” While cutting-out problematic portions of our genetic code, DNA in non-targeted areas may be accidentally snipped, creating unanticipated effects.

Even if off-target effects are minuscule the problems they might cause could be considerable. The concern is that CRISPR will be used to treat humans before the longterm and off-target effects of gene-editing are addressed.

Despite worries about imprecise genetic cuts, the fast pace of CRISPR development is likely to continue since it may alleviate many distressing conditions. Whether this technology is the one that makes insulin shots a thing of the past is hard to say, but it’s surely a contender.

Sources: Live Science; Karin Klein/A Sweet Life
Photo credit: Caroline Davis2010

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