Since 2012, researchers have been optimizing CRISPR technology. CRISPR is a gene editing tool that easily edits the human genome to treat diseases caused by DNA mutations. But until this year, the method, which involves injecting the patient with modified stem cells, was only used to treat diseases in which mutations are present in the bloodstream, such as sickle cell anemia.
A series of recent discoveries harnessing the adaptive immune system of prokaryotes to perform targeted genome editing is having a transformative influence across the biological sciences. The discovery of Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) and CRISPR-associated (Cas) proteins has expanded the applications of genetic research in thousands of laboratories across the globe and is redefining our approach to gene therapy. Traditional gene therapy has raised some concerns, as its reliance on viral vector delivery of therapeutic transgenes can cause both insertional oncogenesis and immunogenic toxicity. While viral vectors remain a key delivery vehicle, CRISPR technology provides a relatively simple and efficient alternative for site-specific gene editing, obliviating some concerns raised by traditional gene therapy. Although it has apparent advantages, CRISPR/Cas9 brings its own set of limitations which must be addressed for safe and efficient clinical translation. This review focuses on the evolution of gene therapy and the role of CRISPR in shifting the gene therapy paradigm. We review the emerging data of recent gene therapy trials and consider the best strategy to move forward with this powerful but still relatively new technology.
Gene therapy as a strategy to provide therapeutic benefit includes modifying genes via disruption, correction, or replacement. Gene therapy has witnessed both early successes and tragic failures in a clinical setting. The discovery and development of the CRISPR/Cas9 system has provided a second opportunity for gene therapy to recover from its stigma and prove to be valuable therapeutic strategy. The recent advent of CRISPR technology in clinical trials has paved way for the new era of CRISPR gene therapy to emerge. However, there are several technical and ethical considerations that need addressing when considering its use for patient care. This review aims to provide a brief history of gene therapy prior to CRISPR and discuss its ethical dilemmas, describe the mechanisms by which CRISPR/Cas9 induces gene edits, discuss the current limitations and advancements made for CRISPR technology for therapeutic translation, and highlight a few recent clinical trials utilizing CRISPR gene therapy while opening a discussion for the ethical barriers that these and future trials may hinge upon.
The first clinical trial in the US using CRISPR to catalyze gene disruption for therapeutic benefit were for patients with sickle-cell anemia (SCD) and later β-thalassemia, by Vertex Pharmaceuticals and CRISPR Therapeutics. This therapy, named CTX001, increases fetal hemoglobin (HbF) levels, which can occupy one or two of four hemoglobin binding pockets on erythrocytes and thereby provides clinical benefit for major β-hemoglobin diseases such as SCD and β-thalassemia). The trial involved collecting autologous hematopoietic stem and progenitor cells from peripheral blood and using CRISPR/Cas9 to disrupt the intronic erythroid-specific enhancer for the BCL11A gene (NCT03745287) as disruption of this gene increases HbF expression. Genetically modified hematopoietic stem cells with BCL11A disruption are delivered by IV infusion after myeloablative conditioning with busulfan to destroy unedited hematopoietic stem cells in the bone marrow. Preliminary findings from two patients receiving this treatment seem promising. One SCD patient was reported to have 46.6% HbF and 94.7% erythrocytes expressing HbF after 4 months of CTX001 transfusions and one β-thalassemia patient is expressing 10.1 g/dL HbF out of 11.9 g/dL total hemoglobin, and 99.8% erythrocytes expressing HbF after 9 months of the therapy. Results from the clinical trial that has opened for this therapy to assess the long-term risks and benefits of CTX001 will dictate whether this approach can provide a novel therapeutic opportunity for a disease that otherwise has limited treatment options.
CRISPR Editing in Human Embryos and Ethical Considerations
While somatic editing for CRISPR therapy has been permitted after careful consideration, human germline editing for therapeutic intent remains highly controversial. With somatic edition, any potential risk would be contained within the individual after informed consent to partake in the therapy. Embryonic editing not only removes autonomy in the decision-making process of the later born individuals, but also allows unforeseen and permanent side effects to pass down through generations. This very power warrants proceeding with caution to prevent major setbacks as witnessed by traditional gene therapy. However, a controversial CRISPR trial in human embryos led by Jiankui He may have already breached the ethical standards set in place for such trials. This pilot study involved genetic engineering of the C-C chemokine receptor type 5 (CCR5) gene in human embryos, with the intention of conferring HIV-resistance, as seen by a naturally occurring CCR5Δ32 mutation in a few individuals. However, based on the limited evidence, CRISPR/Cas9 was likely used to target this gene, but rather than replicate the naturally observed and beneficial 32-base deletion, the edits merely induced DSBs at one end of the deletion, allowing NHEJ to repair the damaged DNA while introducing random, uncharacterized mutations. Thus, it is unknown whether the resultant protein will function similarly to the naturally occurring CCR5Δ32 protein and confer HIV resistance. In addition, only one of the two embryos, termed with the pseudonym Nana, had successful edits in both copies of the CCR5 gene, whereas the other embryo, with pseudonym Lulu, had successful editing in only one copy. Despite these findings, both embryos were implanted back into their mother, knowing that the HIV-resistance will be questionable in Nana and non-existent in Lulu.
The birth of gene therapy as a therapeutic avenue began with the repurposing of viruses for transgene delivery to patients with genetic diseases. Gene therapy enjoyed an initial phase of excitement, until the recognition of immediate and delayed adverse effects resulted in death and caused a major setback. More recently, the discovery and development of CRISPR/Cas9 has re-opened a door for gene therapy and changed the way scientists can approach a genetic aberration—by fixing a non-functional gene rather than replacing it entirely, or by disrupting an aberrant pathogenic gene. CRISPR/Cas9 provides extensive opportunities for programmable gene editing and can become a powerful asset for modern medicine. However, lessons learned from traditional gene therapy should prompt greater caution in moving forward with CRISPR systems to avoid adverse events and setbacks to the development of what may be a unique clinically beneficial technology. A failure to take these lessons into account may provoke further backlash against CRISPR/Cas9 development and slow down progression toward attaining potentially curative gene editing technologies.
Although CRISPR editing in humans remains a highly debated and controversial topic, a few Regulatory Affairs Certification (RAC)-reviewed and FDA-approved CRISPR gene therapy trials have opened after thorough consideration of the risk to benefit ratios. These first few approved trials, currently in Phase I/II, are only for patients with severe diseases, such as cancers or debilitating monogenic diseases. The outcomes of these trials will dictate how rapidly we consider using this system to treat less severe diseases, as the risks of the technology are better understood. A concern remains whether normalizing CRISPR/Cas9 editing for less debilitating diseases may act as a gateway for human genome editing for non-medical purposes, such as altering genes in embryos to create offspring with certain aesthetic traits. This fear of unnatural selection for unethical reasons has likely become more tangible in the public’s view with the strong media attention of the edited “CRISPR babies.” The lasting effects of that trial and outcomes of the approved clinical trials will greatly influence CRISPR’s future in gene therapy and begin to answer the key questions we must consider as we further explore this technology. These key questions include how to avoid the mistakes of the past, who should decide CRISPR’s therapeutic future, and how the ethical boundaries of its applications should best be drawn.