CRISPR Fixes Stem Cells Harboring Blindness-Causing Defect

January 27, 2016
CRISPR Fixes Stem Cells Harboring Blindness-Causing Defect
Skin cells from a patient with X-linked retinitis pigmentosa were transformed into induced pluripotent stem cells, and the blindness-causing point mutation in the RPGR gene was corrected using CRISPR/Cas9. [Vinit Mahajan, University of Iowa Health Care]

Marking yet another CRISPR-related first, scientists have replaced a defective gene associated with a sensory disease in stem cells that were derived from a patient’s tissue. The disease, retinitis pigmentosa (RP), is an inherited condition that degrades the retina and leads to blindness. A patient with the disease supplied a skin sample that was used to generate the stem cells, which were manipulated by means of the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing system.

CRISPR/Cas9, which zeroed in on a single disease-causing mutation in the RGPR gene, was able to make the necessary correction in 13% of the stem cells. This correction rate, according to the Columbia University and University of Iowa scientists who announced the results, is indicative of a practical approach—albeit one that still needs work. The Columbia/Iowa team added that they are working to show that their technique does not introduce any unintended genetic modifications in human cells, and that the corrected cells are safe for transplantation.

While the scientists freely acknowledge that their technique needs additional development before any cures are possible, they basked in the success of having accomplished a difficult genetic fix. The RGPR mutation that needed to be repaired sits in a highly repetitive sequence of the gene where it can be tricky to discriminate one region from another. In fact, it was not clear that CRISPR/Cas9 would be able to home in on and correct the point mutation.

The scientists described their work January 27 in the journal Scientific Reports in an article entitled “Precision Medicine: Genetic Repair of Retinitis Pigmentosa in Patient-Derived Stem Cells.”

“Fibroblasts cultured from a skin-punch biopsy of an XLRP patient were transduced to produce [induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs)] carrying the patient’s c.3070G > T mutation,” the authors wrote. “The iPSCs were transduced with CRISPR guide RNAs, Cas9 endonuclease, and a donor homology template. Despite the gene’s repetitive and GC-rich sequences, 13% of RPGR gene copies showed mutation correction and conversion to the wild-type allele.”

The authors asserted that theirs was the first report of CRISPR/Cas9 being used to correct a pathogenic mutation in iPSCs derived from a patient with photoreceptor degeneration. This proof-of-concept finding, they added, supports the development of personalized iPSC-based transplantation therapies for retinal disease.

The authors also emphasized that because the corrections are made in cells derived from the patient's own tissue, doctors can retransplant the cells with fewer fears of rejection by the immune system. Previous clinical trials have shown that generating retinal cells from embryonic stem cells and using them for transplantation is a safe and potentially effective procedure.

Recently, another group has used CRISPR to ablate a disease-causing mutation in rats with retinitis pigmentosa. Going forward, the first clinical use of CRISPR could be for treating an eye disease because compared to other body parts, the eye is easy to access for surgery, readily accepts new tissue, and can be noninvasively monitored.