CRISPR–Cas9 has been widely hailed as the gene editing tool of the future. But research, published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, about the effects of CRISPR/Cas9, have found it can cause unexpected genetic damage which could lead to dangerous changes in some cells.
Scientists have also learned there may be some safety implications for gene therapies that are being developed using CRISPR/Cas9.
These results come on the heels of a few studies published last month which suggested the CRISPR gene editing tool may inadvertently increase cancer risk in some cells.
“We found that changes in the DNA have been seriously underestimated before now,” said Allan Bradley, a professor at Britain’s Wellcome Sanger Institute who co-led the research published on Monday.
CRISPR/Cas9 can alter sections of DNA in cells by cutting at specific points and introducing changes at that location and is seen by many as a promising way to create treatments for diseases such as HIV or cancer.
Bradley’s team carried out a full systematic study in both mouse and human cells and discovered that CRISPR/Cas9 frequently caused extensive mutations including large genetic rearrangements such as DNA deletions and insertions.
These could lead to important genes being switched on or off – as intended by the therapies – but could also have major unexpected implications, the scientists said.
While experts say treatments like these could inactivate a disease-causing gene, or correct a genetic mutation, much more research is still needed to ensure techniques are safe.