The CRISPR Cas complex has been a game-changing technology for gene editing. CASPR Biotech is using the incredible accuracy of CRISPR for something different — to revolutionize medical diagnostics.
We spoke with company founders Franco Goytia and Carla Giménez.
There are a couple other prominent companies also using CRISPR-Cas systems for diagnostics. What’s different about your focus?
We are rapidly developing a device for hospitals to quickly detect if a patient has an antimicrobial resistant infection. This is a huge problem for hospitals. It’s not just that 2 million people in the US every year get infected with superbugs, or that the infection rates are even higher internationally. When a patient walks into the hospital with a fever of unknown origin, it takes between 24 hours and three days to amplify the DNA of the bacteria to determine if the patient has AMR. During that time, the patient has to be isolated, making it very stressful and expensive. For every one patient found to have AMR, nine more have to go through this isolation. And during that time, they’re started on wide-spectrum antibiotics, which makes the global problem worse.
How does your solution change that?
We can diagnose AMR infections in under an hour. Most superbugs have one of three sequences of DNA that make them resistant. We code our Guide RNA to detect those, and if they do, our Cas enzymes trigger a signal. Not only does it do so in under an hour, but does so more accurately, and cheaper.
You already have this working?
Yes, in the lab. As well, at a hospital in Argentina we have tested our system to detect infectious diseases like Dengue virus. These aren’t yet automated into a device, but our device development is going incredibly well and we are on track to begin a 510K study with the FDA in one year.
You discovered two novel Cas enzymes, one in the Cas 9 family, one in the Cas 12 family. How did you do that, and how they are different?
Existing IP portfolios held by the primary CRISPR institutions were discovered by searching through the public databases of sequenced bacteria. We went through unpublished data, collected by our partners in the extreme environments of Argentina — regions as diverse as volcanos, high deserts, hot springs, and Antarctica. In these environments, bacteria evolved unique ways of defending themselves against viruses.
We are looking at ways our Cas 12 gives us a competitive advantage. It appears to be more stable at higher temperatures, likely due to the environment where it evolved. Using it at higher temperatures may facilitate other reactions in our system, turning what’s a two-step process into a one-step process.
You’ve been able to make incredibly fast progress during your time at IndieBio. What’s been your secret?
Before IndieBio, we were running on a very thin budget. To order reagents, we might be waiting a few months until we could get the money together. At IndieBio, we got them in a day — and shouted in celebration when they arrived. We showed up at IndieBio really hungry to do science at a much faster pace, to make quick decisions. It’s been an opportunity that we’ve been thankful for, and haven’t taken a single moment for granted.
We’ve also been very inspired by the scientists who created the foundational technologies of CRISPR. The way bacteria has defended itself against viruses has existed for hundreds of millions of years. But it took great imagination to reconfigure it for gene editing. This precedent reminds us, daily, that if we work hard, at any moment we too could make more discoveries.
How big could CRISPR-based diagnostics get?
Certainly, from AMR and infectious diseases we will move into flu detection, respiratory infections, sepsis, and urinary tract infections. But the application go beyond healthcare and the hospital. Just like Google allows us to search the entire internet, CRISPR allows us to search the entire genome for any genetic code. Rapid DNA detection has applications beyond humans into pets, livestock, and plant life. Farming, biosecurity, and new domains of agriculture are all possible.