CRISPR Gene Editing in Sub-Saharan Africa

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PLEASANTON, California — Among the recent developments in biotechnology over past decades, few have been as profound and impactful as CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) gene editing. CRISPR utilizes specialized proteins called Cas9. These proteins have a natural function in bacterial cells, where they scan for mutations and errors in DNA. If one such error is noted, the Cas9 protein cuts the DNA in order to remove or add additional segments to the DNA strands. There are two areas of CRISPR research applications that are the most valuable to current society: disease treatment and modification of crops. Food insecurity, diseases and pests still plague developing nations across the world despite significant progress. Although numerous efforts and projects are being conducted to mitigate or even cure these issues, the problems have proven to be challenging. However, over the last decade, CRISPR gene editing has shown that it can benefit public health, medicine and agriculture to help areas of the world in need, such as in sub-Saharan Africa.

State of Hunger in Africa

For thousands of years, farmers have unknowingly manipulated the DNA of plants for human consumption. Over the last five years, powerful new gene-editing technologies allow scientists to directly alter the plants’ genomes. As hunger and famine threaten many nations, it is imperative to develop crops that can withstand irregular weather patterns, insect swarms and natural disasters. In Africa, hunger and starvation are rapidly accelerating. Economic issues and dramatic weather changes resulted in over 20% of the population experiencing long-term hunger. Repeated patterns of small harvests took a toll on nations like Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Zambia. Over 41 million people in Southern Africa are food insecure, while 12 million face starvation.

Utilizing CRISPR

Various organizations have utilized gene editing to make GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms), such as waxy corn or climate change-resistant cacao. A company, Calyxt, became the first to commercially debut a CRISPR gene-edited food, a soybean oil that is healthier for the body. Calyno, as the oil is known, marks a critical phase in gene modification. The time has finally arrived where it is possible to make foods that not only have been genetically altered to improve crop yield but food that is both tastier and healthier than standard crops. Other genetically modified crops were made more accessible through CRISPR, such as rice and other grains that are more resistant to pesticides and insects.

CRISPR gene editing has very high promises for treating and curing a significant number of diseases. In Africa, the leading causes of death are HIV/AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis. Mosquitoes transmit malaria and other diseases, but efforts to control their populations have had little success. CRISPR/Cas9-based gene drives (GDs) were developed for malaria-carrying mosquito populations. These strains spread anti-malarial genes or suppress generations of mosquitos from growing the gene to spread the disease. Even though CRISPR-based GDs would be suitable for mitigating destructive invasive pests in the region, researchers lack efficacious, cost-effective and sustainable area-wide control. CRISPR is particularly suitable for curing prevalent genetic diseases in Africa, such as sickle-cell anemia. Recently a 34-year-old Victoria Gray was completely cured of the disease through CRISPR gene editing. Although a breakthrough, this method is expensive and lengthy, not to mention that some scientists have concerns about post-treatment infections. The testing phase of CRISPR therapy is an arduous process, but given time, it is possible that some of the most deadly diseases could be cured with this technology.

Making CRISPR More Available

More researches are still needed for CRISPR to become widely used in a common setting. In an interview with The Borgen Project, Dr. Meghan Hoccstrasster from the Innovative Genomics Institute stated, “There is a strong desire to make CRISPR-based sickle cell therapies an option across Africa. Right now, no CRISPR-based therapy has reached phase III trials, so we’re still a ways off from an approved treatment that will be available to more than a small number of clinical trial participants. Once approved, we anticipate a very high price tag for any genetic therapy, from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars for a single treatment. Even in the U.S. (or perhaps especially in the U.S.), there are likely to be severe issues with access to such therapies among people experiencing poverty, those without health insurance, and even for people who are reasonably well-off and have insurance.” Hoccstrasser discussed methods to reduce the costs of these procedures. The main method Hoccstrasser mentioned for potentially treating sickle cell disease was called ex vivo editing, in which a sample of a patient’s blood stem cells are collected and then edited in a lab. Afterward, the cells are added back into the patient’s body, where they hopefully take hold and replace the current stem cell population. IGI and several other companies are also looking into in vivo genome-editing reagents.

The Way Forward

The field of CRISPR research is a fascinating topic with a lot of promise. But experts in the field have shown that developing treatments and cures for many medical and agricultural issues facing nations in poverty takes a lot of time and resources. The benefits of this technology, which could save the lives of millions of people, should be equally accessible to those in developing countries. With the proper investment, CRISPR gene editing would be worth the wait.

Aditya Daita
Photo: Flickr

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