Effective Insertion Of DNA Molecules Into Cells For Gene Therapies

For years, researchers have attempted to harness the full potential of gene therapy, a technique that inserts genes into a patient’s cells to treat aggressive diseases such as cancer. But getting engineered DNA molecules into cells is not an easy task.

J. Mark Meacham, assistant professor of mechanical engineering & materials science at Washington University in St. Louis, leads a team of researchers that has developed a method enabling effective insertion of large molecules — such as DNA, RNA and proteins into cells and propels them into the cell nucleus. By combining a technique known as Acoustic Shear Poration (ASP) with electrophoresis, the approach uses ultrasound waves and focused mechanical force to create nanoscale holes, or pores, in the cell membrane that are big enough for large macromolecules or nanoparticles to pass into the cell’s interior.

Operation of the acoustic shear poration (ASP) device in Meacham’s lab

The researchers wrote that so far, ASP has achieved greater than 75 percent delivery efficiency of macromolecules. DNA insertion, or transfection, which is of most interest in gene therapy, is significantly more challenging. Yet the combined application of mechanical and electrical forces pioneered by Meacham and colleagues yields roughly 100 percent improvement in transfection versus pure mechanoporation. Results of the research are published in Scientific Reports.

Source: https://engineering.wustl.edu/

Simple Blood Test To Detect Eight Types Of Cancer

Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center researchers developed a single blood test that screens for eight common cancer types and helps identify the location of the cancer.

The test, called CancerSEEK, is a unique noninvasive, multianalyte test that simultaneously evaluates levels of eight cancer proteins and the presence of cancer gene mutations from circulating DNA in the blood. The test is aimed at screening for eight common cancer types that account for more than 60 percent of cancer deaths in the U.S. Five of the cancers covered by the test currently have no screening test.


The use of a combination of selected biomarkers for early detection has the potential to change the way we screen for cancer, and it is based on the same rationale for using combinations of drugs to treat cancers,” says Nickolas Papadopoulos, Ph.D., senior author and professor of oncology and pathology.

Circulating tumor DNA mutations can be highly specific markers for cancer. To capitalize on this inherent specificity, we sought to develop a small yet robust panel that could detect at least one mutation in the vast majority of cancers,” adds Joshua Cohen, an M.D.-Ph.D. student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the paper’s first author. “In fact, keeping the mutation panel small is essential to minimize false-positive results and keep such screening tests affordable.”

The findings were published online by Science.

Source: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/

Monkeys Have Been Cloned, Humans Could Be Next

Chinese scientists have cloned monkeys using the same technique that produced Dolly the Sheep two decades ago, breaking a technical barrier that could open the door to copying humans.  Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua, two identical long-tailed macaques, were born eight and six weeks ago, making them the first primates — the order of mammals that includes monkeys, apes and humans — to be cloned from a non-embryonic cell.

It was achieved through a process called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), which involves transferring the nucleus of a cell, which includes its DNA, into an egg which has had its nucleus removed. Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai said their work should be a boon to medical research by making it possible to study diseases in populations of genetically uniform monkeys. But it also brings the feasibility of cloning to the doorstep of our own species.


Humans are primates. So [for] the cloning of primate species, including humans, the technical barrier is now broken,” said Muming Poo, who helped supervise the program at the institute.

“The reason … we broke this barrier is to produce animal models that are useful for medicine, for human health.

Genetically identical animals are useful in research because confounding factors caused by genetic variability in non-cloned animals can complicate experiments. They could be used to test new drugs for a range of diseases before clinical use. The two newborns are now being bottle-fed and are growing normally.

Source: http://www.abc.net.au/

Alcohol Damages DNA In Stem Cells

Scientists have shown how alcohol damages DNA in stem cells, which may help to explain how drinking alcohol is linked to an increased risk of cancer, according to research led by scientists from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (UK)  and part-funded by Cancer Research UK. Much previous research looking at the precise ways in which alcohol causes cancer has been done in cell cultures. But in this study, published in Nature, researchers used mice to show how alcohol exposure leads to permanent genetic damage.

The scientists gave diluted alcohol, chemically known as ethanol, to mice. They then used chromosome analysis and DNA sequencing to examine the genetic damage caused by acetaldehyde, a harmful chemical produced when the body processes alcohol. They found that acetaldehyde can break and damage DNA within blood stem cells leading to rearranged chromosomes and permanently altering the DNA sequences within these cells. It is important to understand how the DNA blueprint within stem cells is damaged, because when healthy stem cells become faulty they can give rise to cancer.

Some cancers develop due to DNA damage in stem cells. While some damage occurs by chance, our findings suggest that drinking alcohol can increase the risk of this damage,” said Professor Ketan Patelopens in new window, lead author of the study and scientist, part-funded by Cancer Research UK, at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology.

The study also examined how the body tries to protect itself against damage caused by alcohol. The first line of defence is a family of enzymes called aldehyde dehydrogenases (ALDH). These enzymes break down harmful acetaldehyde into acetate, which our cells can use as a source of energy.

Worldwide, millions of people, particularly those from South East Asia, either lack these enzymes or carry faulty versions of them. So, when they drink, acetaldehyde builds up which causes a flushed complexion, and also leads to them feeling unwell.

In the study, when mice lacking the critical ALDH enzyme ALDH2 – were given alcohol, it resulted in four times as much DNA damage in their cells compared to mice with the fully functioning ALDH2 enzyme.

Source: https://www.mrc.ac.uk/

Swiss Army Knife NanoVaccine To Fight Tumors

Scientists are using their increasing knowledge of the complex interaction between cancer and the immune system to engineer increasingly potent anti-cancer vaccines.
Now researchers at the National Institute ofBiomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) have developed a synergistic nanovaccine packing DNA and RNA sequences that modulate the immune response, along with anti-tumor antigens, into one smallnanoparticle. The nanovaccine produced an immune response that specifically killed tumor tissue, while simultaneously inhibiting tumor-induced immune suppression. Together this blocked lung tumor growth in a mouse model of metastatic colon cancer.

Large particles (left) containing the DNA and RNA components are coated with electronically charged molecules that shrink the particle. The tumor-specific neoantigen is then complexed with the surface to complete construction of the nanovaccine.
Upper left: electron micrograph of large particle


The molecular dance between cancer and the immune system is a complex one and scientists continue to identify the specific molecular pathways that rev up or tamp down the immune system. Biomedical engineers are using this knowledge to create nanoparticles that can carry different molecular agents that target these pathways. The goal is to simultaneously stimulate the immune system to specifically attack the tumor while also inhibiting the suppression of the immune system, which often occurs in cancer patients. The aim is to press on the gas pedal of the immune system while also releasing the emergency brake.

A key hurdle is to design a system to reproducibly and efficiently create a nanoparticle loaded with multiple agents that synergize to mount an enhanced immune attack on the tumor. Engineers at the NIBIB report the development and testing of such a nanovaccine in the journal Nature Communications.

Source: https://www.nibib.nih.gov/

How To Correct Genes That Cause High Cholesterol

U.S. researchers have used nanotechnology plus the powerful CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing tool to turn off a key cholesterol-related gene in mouse liver cells, an advance that could lead to new ways to correct genes that cause high cholesterol and other liver diseasesNanotechnology is the design and manipulation of materials thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair.

We’ve shown you can make a nanoparticle that can be used to permanently and specifically edit the DNA in the liver of an adult animal,” said study author Daniel Anderson, an associate professor in chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The study, published  in Nature Biotechnology, holds promise for permanently editing genes such as PCSK9, a cholesterol-regulating gene that is already the target of two drugs made by the biotechnology companies Regeneron Pharmaceuticals and Amgen.

In the study, the scientists were trying to develop a safe and efficient way to deliver the components needed for CRISPR-Cas9, a type of molecular scissors that can selectively trim away defective genes and replace them with new stretches of DNA.

The system consists of a DNA-cutting enzyme called Cas9 and a stretch of RNA that guides the cutting enzyme to the correct spot in the genome. Most teams currently use viruses to deliver CRISPR into cells, an approach that is limited because the immune system can develop antibodies to viruses.

To overcome this, the team chemically modified the CRISPR components to protect them from enzymes in the body that would normally break them down. They then inserted this material into nano-scale fat particles and injected them into mice, where they made their way to liver cells.

In tests targeting the PCSK9 gene, the system proved highly effective, . The PCSK9 protein made by this gene was undetectable in the treated mice, eliminating the gene in more than 80 percent of liver cells, which also experienced a 35 percent drop in total cholesterol, the researchers reported.

High levels of cholesterol can clog arteries, causing reduced blood flow that can lead to a heart attack or stroke.

Source: http://news.mit.edu/

Editing Genes In Human Embryos

Two new CRISPR tools overcome the scariest parts of gene editing.The ability to edit RNA and individual DNA base pairs will make gene editing much more precise. Several years ago, scientists discovered a technique known as CRISPR/Cas9, which allowed them to edit DNA more efficiently than ever before.
Since then, CRISPR science has exploded; it’s become one of the most exciting and fast-moving areas of research, transforming everything from medicine to agriculture and energy. In 2017 alone, more than 14,000 CRISPR studies were published.

But here’s the thing: CRISPR, while a major leap forward in gene editing, can still be a blunt instrument. There have been problems with CRISPR modifying unintended gene targets and making worrisome, and permanent, edits to an organism’s genome. These changes could be passed down through generations, which has raised the stakes of CRISPR experiments — and the twin specters of “designer babies” and genetic performance enhancers — particularly when it comes to editing genes in human embryos.
So while CRISPR science is advancing quickly, scientists are still very much in the throes of tweaking and refining their toolkit. And on Wednesday, researchers at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard launched a coordinated blitz with two big reports that move CRISPR in that safer and more precise direction.
In a paper published in Science, researchers described an entirely new CRISPR-based gene editing tool that targets RNA, DNA’s sister, allowing for transient changes to genetic material. In Nature, scientists described how a more refined type of CRISPR gene editing can alter a single bit of DNA without cutting it — increasing the tool’s precision and efficiency.

The first paper, out Wednesday in Science, describes a new gene editing system. This one, from researchers at MIT and Harvard, focuses on tweaking human RNA instead of DNA.

Our cells contain chromosomes made up of chemical strands called DNA, which carry genetic information. Those genes have recipes for proteins that lead to a bunch of different traits. But to carry out the instructions in any one recipe, DNA needs another type of genetic material called RNA to get involved.

RNA is ephemeral: It acts like a middleman, or a messenger. For a gene to become a protein, that gene has to be transcribed into RNA in the cell, and the RNA is then read to make the protein. If the DNA is permanent — the family recipe book passed down through generations — the RNA is like your aunt’s scribbled-out recipe on a Post-It note, turning up only when it’s needed and disappearing again.

With the CRISPR/Cas9 system, researchers are focused on editing DNA. (For more on how that system works, read this Vox explainer.) But the new Science paper describes a novel gene editing tool called REPAIR that’s focused on using a different enzyme, Cas13, to edit that transient genetic material, the RNA, in cells. REPAIR can target specific RNA letters, or nucleosides, that are involved in single-base changes that regularly cause disease in humans.

This is hugely appealing for one big reason: With CRISPR/Cas9, the changes to the genome, or the cell’s recipe book, are permanent. You can’t undo them. With REPAIR, since researchers can target single bits of ephemeral RNA, the changes they make are transient, even reversible. So this system could fix genetic mutations without actually touching the genome (like throwing away your aunt’s Post-It note recipe without adding it to the family recipe book).

Source: https://www.vox.com/

Gene Researchers Have Created Green Mice

These are no Frankenstein mice. Their green feet come courtesy of a fluorescent green jelly fish gene added to their own genome. This allows a team of British scientists to test out gene editing using CRISPR-Cas9 technology.


“We take what were or would have been green embryos and we make them into non-green embryos, so it’s a really great way of demonstrating the method“, said Dr. Anthony Perry, reproductive biologist at the University of Bath.

The technique uses the ribonucleic acid molecule CRISPR together with the Cas9 protein enzyme. CRISPR guides the Cas9 protein to a defective part of a genome where it acts like molecular scissors to cut out a specific part of the DNA. This could revolutionise how we treat diseases with a genetic component, like sickle cell anaemia. The technique is being pioneered in the U.S.
We now have a technology that allows correction of a sequence that would lead to normally functioning cells. And I think you know the opportunities with this are really exciting and really profound. There are many diseases that are have known genetic causes that we now have in principle a way to cure,“explains Jennifer Doudna, Professor of cell biology at the University of Berkeley.
Last year two teams of U.S. based scientists used CRISPR-Cas9 technology in mice to correct the genetic mutation that causes sickle cell disease. Although researchers aren’t yet close to using CRISPR-Cas9 to edit human embryos for implantation into the womb – some are already warning against it.

Dr David King, Director of  Human Genetics Alert, comments: “It will immediately create this new form of what we call consumer eugenics, that’s to say eugenics driven by the free market and consumer preferences in which people choose the cosmetic characteristics and the abilities of their children and try to basically enhance their children to perform better than other people’s children.” Other potential applications of the technology could be to make food crops and livestock animal species disease-resistant. The British team say CRISPR-Cas9 presents a golden opportunity to prevent genetic disease.

Source: http://www.reuters.com/

How To Fix Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy

Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, have engineered a new way to deliver CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology inside cells and have demonstrated in mice that the technology can repair the mutation that causes Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a severe muscle-wasting disease. A new study shows that a single injection of CRISPR-Gold, as the new delivery system is called, into mice with Duchenne muscular dystrophy led to an 18-times-higher correction rate and a two-fold increase in a strength and agility test compared to control groups.

Since 2012, when study co-author Jennifer Doudna, a professor of molecular and cell biology and of chemistry at UC Berkeley, and colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier, of the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology, repurposed the Cas9 protein to create a cheap, precise and easy-to-use gene editor, researchers have hoped that therapies based on CRISPR-Cas9 would one day revolutionize the treatment of genetic diseases. Yet developing treatments for genetic diseases remains a big challenge in medicine. This is because most genetic diseases can be cured only if the disease-causing gene mutation is corrected back to the normal sequence, and this is impossible to do with conventional therapeutics.

CRISPR/Cas9, however, can correct gene mutations by cutting the mutated DNA and triggering homology-directed DNA repair. However, strategies for safely delivering the necessary components (Cas9, guide RNA that directs Cas9 to a specific gene, and donor DNA) into cells need to be developed before the potential of CRISPR-Cas9-based therapeutics can be realized. A common technique to deliver CRISPR-Cas9 into cells employs viruses, but that technique has a number of complications. CRISPR-Gold does not need viruses.

In the new study, research lead by the laboratories of Berkeley bioengineering professors Niren Murthy and Irina Conboy demonstrated that their novel approach, called CRISPR-Gold because gold nanoparticles are a key component, can deliver Cas9 – the protein that binds and cuts DNA – along with guide RNA and donor DNA into the cells of a living organism to fix a gene mutation.

CRISPR-Gold is the first example of a delivery vehicle that can deliver all of the CRISPR components needed to correct gene mutations, without the use of viruses,” Murthy said.

The study was published in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering.

Source: http://news.berkeley.edu/

Faulty DNA Linked To Fatal Heart Condition Removed From Embryo

Scientists have modified human embryos to remove genetic mutations that cause heart failure in otherwise healthy young people in a landmark demonstration of the controversial procedure. It is the first time that human embryos have had their genomes edited outside China, where researchers have performed a handful of small studies to see whether the approach could prevent inherited diseases from being passed on from one generation to the next.

While none of the research so far has created babies from modified embryos, a move that would be illegal in many countries, the work represents a milestone in scientists’ efforts to master the technique and brings the prospect of human clinical trials one step closer. The work focused on an inherited form of heart disease, but scientists believe the same approach could work for other conditions caused by single gene mutations, such as cystic fibrosis and certain kinds of breast cancer.

This embryo gene correction method, if proven safe, can potentially be used to prevent transmission of genetic disease to future generations,” said Paula Amato, a fertility specialist involved in the US-Korean study at Oregon Health and Science University.

The scientists used a powerful gene editing tool called Crispr-Cas9 to fix mutations in embryos made with the sperm of a man who inherited a heart condition known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or HCM. The disease, which leads to a thickening of the heart’s muscular wall, affects one in 500 people and is a common cause of sudden cardiac arrest in young people. Humans have two copies of every gene, but some diseases are caused by a mutation in only one of the copies. For the study, the scientists recruited a man who carried a single mutant copy of a gene called MYBPC3 which causes HCM.

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/

Multi-AntiOxidant Nanoparticles Fight Sepsis

With an incidence of 31.5 million worldwide and a mortality of around 17%, sepsis remains the most common cause of death in hospitalized patients, even in industrialized countries where antibiotics and critical care facilities are readily available. While this disease begins as a serious infection, sepsis‘ life-threatening organ failure is due to an excessive inflammatory response.

By overproducing oxygen free radicals, the immunity of the host itself paradoxically leads to an increase in morbidity and mortality. A team of researchers from Center for Nanoparticle Research, within the  (IBS), with colleagues from the Seoul National University Hospital synthesized nanoparticles with superior antioxidant properties to treat sepsis in rats and mice by removing harmful oxygen radicals and reducing inflammatory responses.

Under normal physiological conditions, oxygen radicals, also called reactive oxygen species (ROS), are created as by-products of several cellular reactions and their concentration is counterbalanced by antioxidant enzymes, such as superoxide dismutase (SOD) and catalase (CAT). However in patients with severe infections, the production of ROS as well as reactive nitrogen species (RNS), increases dramatically, while the body’s antioxidant capacity may be compromised. As a consequence, the ROS and RNS accumulation can lead to damages to DNA, proteins, and lipid membranes.

All major diseases are related to ROS,” explains HYEON Taeghwan, the director of the Center for Nanoparticle Research. “Cellular damage caused by ROS has been found not only in sepsis, but also in cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, atherosclerosis, and neurodegenerative diseases, just to name a few.”

Ceria nanoparticles replace the function of antioxidant enzymes. Cerium trivalent ions (Ce3+) play a decisive role in eliminating ROS. Thanks to the addition of zirconium ions, the scientists could create a new type of nanoparticles, named 7CZ (containing 70% Ce ions and 30% Zr ions), with optimized nanoparticle size and Ce3+ content. The nanoparticles described in this study are smaller, just two nanometers in size. Moreover, they have a higher percent of Ce3+. When tested in mice with sepsis, the survival rate increased 2.5 fold in the 7CZ NP-treated group compared to the control. Scientists found that 7CZ nanoparticles can infiltrate the damaged tissue and act locally at the infection site.

Treating sepsis has been an old challenge for physicians worldwide,” emphasizes LEE Seung-Hoon, professor of department of Neurology, Seoul National University Hospital. “This study shows the possibility of overcoming the limits of modern medicine with nanotechnology.”

This study has been published in the journal Angewandte Chemie.

Source: ,http://www.ibs.re.kr/

How To Capture Quickly Cancer Markers

A nanoscale product of human cells that was once considered junk is now known to play an important role in intercellular communication and in many disease processes, including cancer metastasis. Researchers at Penn State have developed nanoprobes to rapidly isolate these rare markers, called extracellular vesicles (EVs), for potential development of precision cancer diagnoses and personalized anticancer treatments.

Lipid nanoprobes

Most cells generate and secrete extracellular vesicles,” says Siyang Zheng, associate professor of biomedical engineering and electrical engineering. “But they are difficult for us to study. They are sub-micrometer particles, so we really need an electron microscope to see them. There are many technical challenges in the isolation of nanoscale EVs that we are trying to overcome for point-of-care cancer diagnostics.”

At one time, researchers believed that EVs were little more than garbage bags that were tossed out by cells. More recently, they have come to understand that these tiny fat-enclosed sacks — lipids — contain double-stranded DNA, RNA and proteins that are responsible for communicating between cells and can carry markers for their origin cells, including tumor cells. In the case of cancer, at least one function for EVs is to prepare distant tissue for metastasis.

The team’s initial challenge was to develop a method to isolate and purify EVs in blood samples that contain multiple other components. The use of liquid biopsy, or blood testing, for cancer diagnosis is a recent development that offers benefits over traditional biopsy, which requires removing a tumor or sticking a needle into a tumor to extract cancer cells. For lung cancer or brain cancers, such invasive techniques are difficult, expensive and can be painful.

Noninvasive techniques such as liquid biopsy are preferable for not only detection and discovery, but also for monitoring treatment,” explains Chandra Belani, professor of medicine and deputy director of the Cancer Institute,Penn State College of Medicine, and clinical collaborator on the study.

We invented a system of two micro/nano materials,” adds Zheng. “One is a labeling probe with two lipid tails that spontaneously insert into the lipid surface of the extracellular vesicle. At the other end of the probe we have a biotin molecule that will be recognized by an avidin molecule we have attached to a magnetic bead.”

Source: http://news.psu.edu/