This New Startup Will Use CRISPR as a Search Engine to Hunt Down Diseases

"By now, you’ve heard of CRISPR—the bacterial self-defense mechanism that can be used to modify the genome. From “biohackers” building the hype by injecting themselves with CRISPR—and later regretting it—to the more measured, successful approach taken by scientists and startups, people are keen to leverage this new technology to the hilt. In 2016, the funding for synthetic biology startups surpassed a billion dollars for the first time, according to CB Insights.

One of the majestic things about CRISPR is its mode of operation. This essentially consists of a guide RNA containing the sequence of DNA you’re hoping to edit or remove, the DNA you want to replace it with, and Cas9—the protein that slices up the targeted DNA.

It sounds simple enough, but concealed within this mechanism is a truly astonishing search engine for sequences of genetic code. CRISPR can move around the nucleus incredibly quickly, rapidly sampling long sections of DNA to find and edit the DNA that’s paired with its guide RNA.

It’s this aspect of CRISPR that’s the focus of a new startup, Mammoth Biosciences. For them, it’s not about the cut-and-paste potential for DNA. “Control + F is the exciting part,” according to Mammoth co-founder and CEO Trevor Martin.

The concept is pretty simple: take a genetic marker, such as a particular pathogen or a biomarker that indicates leukemia, say. Load the strand of genetic information you’re looking for into CRISPR’s guide RNA, and let CRISPR explore the sample. The CRISPR is attached to “reporter molecules” that fluoresce when the DNA is located and cut, potentially allowing us to see the result of the test with the naked eye. Mammoth says this can be used to detect bacteria, viruses, and even genetic mutations that cause disease, and like many biotech startups, they hope to make diagnosis easier.

According to the company, they’re aiming to make testing strips about the size of a credit card that can detect multiple diseases and be used in hospitals or even at home. All you’d need is one of their detectors and a smartphone app to upload images of the sample for diagnosis. And they identify a plethora of uses for a system that can be quickly modified to detect different sequences of nucleotides—from non-invasive prenatal screening to detecting cancer or infectious diseases early

Let's not get too excited before it's proven to work. I have seen quite a few start-ups with amazing ideas that didn't materialise in the last few years (e.g. the Scanadu Scout that never got its FDA approval or the SCiO molecular analyser that didn't live up to its potential).