Prime editing: Transforming gene editing from butcher to surgeon

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Prime editing: Transforming gene editing from butcher to surgeon

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Prime editing: Transforming gene editing from butcher to surgeon

Subheading text
Prime editing promises to turn the gene editing process into its most precise version yet.
    • Author:
    • Author name
      Quantumrun Foresight
    • May 10, 2023

    While revolutionary, gene editing has been an area of uncertainty due to its error-prone system of cutting off both DNA strands. Prime editing is about to change all of that. This method uses a new enzyme called a prime editor, which can make specific changes to the genetic code without cutting the DNA, allowing for more precision and fewer mutations.

    Prime editing context

    Gene editing allows scientists to make precise changes to the genetic code of living organisms. This technology can be used for various applications, including treating genetic diseases, developing new medicines, and improving crop yields. However, the current methods, such as CRISPR-Cas9, rely on cutting both strands of DNA, which can introduce errors and unintended mutations. Prime editing is a new method that aims to overcome these limitations. Additionally, it can make a wider range of changes, including inserting or deleting large chunks of DNA.

    In 2019, Harvard University researchers, led by chemist and biologist Dr. David Liu, created prime editing, which promises to be the surgeon that gene editing needs by cutting only one strand as required. The early versions of this technique had limitations, such as being able to edit only specific types of cells. In 2021, an improved version, called twin prime editing, introduced two pegRNAs (prime editing guide RNAs, which serve as the cutting tool) that can edit more extensive DNA sequences (more than 5,000 base pairs, which are the rungs of the DNA ladder).

    Meanwhile, researchers at the Broad Institute found ways to improve the efficiency of prime editing by identifying cellular pathways that limit its effectiveness. The study showed that the new systems can more effectively edit mutations that cause Alzheimer's, heart disease, sickle cell, prion diseases, and type 2 diabetes with fewer unintended consequences.

    Disruptive impact

    Prime editing can correct more complex mutations by having a more reliable DNA substitution, insertion, and deletion mechanism. The technology's ability to perform on larger genes is also an important step, as 14 percent of mutation types are found in these types of genes. Dr. Liu and his team acknowledge that the technology is still in its early stages, even with all the potential. Still, they are conducting further studies to someday use the technology for therapeutics. At the very least, they hope other research teams will also experiment with the technology and develop their improvements and use cases. 

    Research group collaboration will likely increase as more experiments are conducted in this field. For example, the Cell study featured partnerships among Harvard University, Princeton University, University of California San Francisco, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, among others. According to the researchers, through collaboration with various teams, they were able to comprehend the mechanism of prime editing and enhance certain aspects of the system. Further, the partnership serves as a great illustration of how a deep understanding can guide experimental planning.

    Applications for prime editing

    Some applications for prime editing may include:

    • Scientists using the technology to grow healthy cells and organs for transplant aside from correcting mutations directly.
    • A transition from therapeutics and correction into gene enhancements such as height, eye color, and body type.
    • Prime editing being used to improve crop yields and resistance to pests and diseases. It could also be used to create new types of crops that are better suited to different climates or growing conditions.
    • Creation of new types of bacteria and other organisms beneficial for industrial processes, such as producing biofuels or cleaning up environmental pollution.
    • Increased working opportunities for research labs, geneticists, and biotechnology professionals.

    Questions to consider

    • How might governments regulate prime editing?
    • How else do you think prime editing can change how genetic diseases are treated and diagnosed?

    Insight references

    The following popular and institutional links were referenced for this insight: