Improving precision gene editing
“We have identified what might be the next wave of therapies for genetic anemias,” said co-author Mitchell Weiss, M.D., Ph.D., St. Jude Department of Hematology chair. “We took the newest cutting-edge genetic engineering technology and showed that we could make meaningful gene edits for future therapies.”
While the scientists conducted the research in SCD patient cells transplanted into mice, the approach may have advantages over current genome editing methods used in clinical trials, such as Cas9 nucleases, which make double-stranded breaks in DNA that prime editing largely avoids. The collaborators had previously shown base editing, an alternative genome editing technology, could turn the sickle cell mutation into a benign variant, but not the original healthy sequence, in a 2021 Nature publication. The current study showed prime editing could turn the disease mutation into the original normal gene variant through a T-to-A conversion, which base editing cannot make.
Though the study showed the potential benefits of using prime editing to cure genetic anemias, it also showed limitations. Prime editing requires a time-consuming process to adapt and optimize each step of the protocol, such as designing the prime editing guide RNAs (pegRNAs) that target the prime editing system to the right DNA region and specify the desired edit.
Safety remains a concern for all genomic editing technologies, especially novel approaches. While the current study, consistent with other labs’ reports on prime editing, showed virtually no off-target prime editing, it could have unforeseen safety issues as a newer gene editing technology.
“We are doing our best to predict toxicity, but we won’t know the true extent of the risks of this therapy until it is used in patients,” said Weiss.
Even with these challenges, the scientists are optimistic about the future of prime editing.
“Because of its unique versatility, prime editing has the potential to cure many more genetic diseases,” Yen said. “It will be a challenge to get to the clinic. It will require extensive manufacturing development, process optimization and safety assessment. But the proof of concept is there. Our work now opens the door to developing cures for many hematological diseases.”
Authors and funding
The study’s first author is Kelcee Everette, a graduate student in Liu’s laboratory at the Broad Institute, who participated in the St. Jude Collaborative Research Consortium for Sickle Cell Disease to advance the work. Other authors are Rachel Levine, Kalin Mayberry, Yoonjeong Jang, Thiyagaraj Mayuranathan, Nikitha Nimmagadda, Erin Dempsey, Yichao Li, Senthil Bhoopalan and Yong Cheng, all of St. Jude; Gregory Newby, Jessie Davis, Andrew Nelson, Peter Chen and Alexander Sousa, Broad Institute; and Xiong Liu and John Tisdale, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
The study was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health (U01 AI142756, RM1 HG009490, R35 GM118062, R01 HL156647, R01 HL136135, P01 HL053749 and P30 CA21765), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (Helen Hay Whitney Postdoctoral Fellowship), the St. Jude Collaborative Research Consortium for Sickle Cell Disease, the National Science Foundation GRFP fellowships and ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization of St. Jude.