How It Works
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Fixing broken genes

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What’s happened?

For the first time, scientists have discovered how to insert DNA into non-dividing cells. Previously, modern technology was unable to change and repair non-dividing cells (like the ones found in the heart and the brain) but this could now be a thing of the past. This huge breakthrough was discovered after the technique helped restore vision in rats with retintis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that can also affect humans.

Study into this field of genetics has been happening for a long time but in a paper published yesterday in Nature, it has been proved that it can work. Scientists sucessfully inserted DNA into blind rats, modifying the cells and partially restoring vision in the rodents. This is the first time that the CRISPR-Cas9 system technique has been used in non-dividing cells.

What does it mean?

The fact that the rats’ vision was improved is huge. Although only a small development, this proves that the technology is now available to fix broken cells. It’s still potentially a long way away but if a rat’s eyesight can be fixed, perhaps a human’s can too, especially as retintis pigmentosa also affects Homo sapiens. It has been labelled as the ‘holy grail’ of genetics in the mainstream media and the technology could help cure serious brain, heart and liver diseases in the future and even help reverse the ageing process.

Holy grail of genetics
This is a picture of one of the rat brains tested upon. Cell nuclei are blue while the edited genes are green

 

Image credit Salk Institute