If you’re taking a road trip across the country, you have a starting point and an ending point. How you go from point A to point B could be one of a million different routes, but the ultimate outcome is the same: reaching your final destination.
Yesterday scientists from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital published exciting findings in the journal Nature Medicine on a new gene editing strategy that could offer a different route for treating genetic blood disorders such as sickle cell disease (SCD) and b-thalassemia.
The scientists used a gene editing tool called CRISPR. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard about CRISPR in the general media as the next, hot technology that could possibly help bring cures for serious diseases.
In simple terms, CRISPR acts as molecular scissors that facilitate cutting and pasting of DNA sequences at specific locations in the genome. For blood diseases like SCD and b-thalassemia, in which blood cells have abnormal hemoglobin, CRISPR gene editing offers ways to turn on and off genes that cause the clinical symptoms of these diseases.
Fetal vs. Adult hemoglobin
Before I get into the meat of this story, let’s take a moment to discuss hemoglobin. What is it? It’s a protein found in red blood cells that transports oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. Hemoglobin is made up of different subunits and the composition of these hemoglobin subunits change as newborns develop into adults.
Fetal hemoglobin (HbF) is comprised of a and g subunits while adult hemoglobin (HbA) is typically comprised of a and b subunits. Patients with SCD and b-thalassemia typically have mutations in the b globin gene. In SCD, this causes blood cells to take on an unhealthy, sickle cell shape that can clog vessels and eventually cause premature death. In b-thalassemia, the b-globin gene isn’t synthesized into protein at the proper levels and patients suffer from anemia (low red blood cell count).
One way that scientists are attempting to combat the negative side effects of mutant HbF is to tip the scales towards maintaining expression of the fetal g-globin gene. The idea spawned from individuals with hereditary persistence of fetal hemoglobin (HPFH), a condition where the hemoglobin composition fails to transition from HbF to HbA, leaving high levels of HbF in adult blood. Individuals who have HPFH and are predisposed to SCD or b-thalassemia amazingly don’t have clinical symptoms, suggesting that HbF plays either a protective or therapeutic role.
The current study is taking advantage of this knowledge in their attempt to treat blood disorders. Mitchell Weiss, senior author on the study and chair of the St. Jude Department of Hematology, explained the thought process behind their study:
“It has been known for some time that individuals with genetic mutations that persistently elevate fetal hemoglobin are resistant to the symptoms of sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia, genetic forms of severe anemia that are common in many regions of the world. We have found a way to use CRISPR gene editing to produce similar benefits.”
CRISPRing blood stem cells for therapeutic purposes
Weiss and colleagues engineered red blood cells to have elevated levels of HbF in hopes of preventing symptoms of SCD. They used CRISPR to create a small deletion in a sequence of DNA, called a promoter, that controls expression of the hemoglobin g subunit 1 (HBG1) gene. The deletion elevates the levels of HbF in blood cells and closely mimics genetic mutations found in HPFH patients.
Weiss further explained the genome editing process in a news release:
“Our work has identified a potential DNA target for genome editing-mediated therapy and offers proof-of-principle for a possible approach to treat sickle cell and beta-thalassemia. We have been able to snip that DNA target using CRISPR, remove a short segment in a “control section” of DNA that stimulates gamma-to-beta switching, and join the ends back up to produce sustained elevation of fetal hemoglobin levels in adult red blood cells.”
The scientists genetically modified hematopoietic stem cells and blood progenitor cells from healthy individuals to make sure that their CRISPR gene editing technique was successful. After modifying the stem cells, they matured them into red blood cells in the lab and observed that the levels of HbF increased from 5% to 20%.
Encouraged by these results, they tested the therapeutic potential of their CRISPR strategy on hematopoietic stem cells from three SCD patients. While 25% of unmodified SCD blood stem cells developed red blood cells with a sickle cell shape under low-oxygen conditions (to induce stress), CRISPR edited SCD stem cells generated way fewer sickle cells (~4%) and had a higher level of HbF expression.
Many routes, one destination
The authors concluded that their genome editing technique is successful at switching hemoglobin expression from the adult form back to the fetal form. With further studies and safety testing, this strategy could be one day be developed into a treatment for patients with SCD and b-thalassemia
But the authors were also humble in their findings and admitted that there are many different genome editing strategies or routes for developing therapies for inherited blood diseases.
“Our results represent an additional approach to these existing innovative strategies and compare favorably in terms of the levels of fetal hemoglobin that are produced by our experimental system.”
My personal opinion is the more strategies thrown into the pipeline the better. As things go in science, many of these strategies won’t be successful in reaching the final destination of curing one of these diseases, but with more shots on goal, our chances of developing a treatment that works there are a lot higher.