Mammoth Biosciences teams with GSK to put Covid-19 CRISPR tests at home, airports, borders
The old CRISPR rivalry is back in pandemic fashion.
Two weeks after Feng Zhang-founded Sherlock Biosciences launched the first Covid-19 CRISPR test, Jennifer Doudna-founded Mammoth Biosciences has partnered with GlaxoSmithKline on their own tests, with plans to eventually roll it out in places like homes and airports. Take a swab, get a green light, and you’re good to board.
“You can also imagine about building a companion app, so you’re connecting to next steps or telehealth” if you test positive, Mammoth CEO and co-founder Trevor Martin told Endpoints News. “There’s a lot of opportunity to really integrate into the broader ecosystem. That’s why we’re working with an organization like GSK — they obviously have a global reach to understand different needs, how to scale, and are plugged into this broader ecosystem.”
Thus far, the at-home Covid-19 tests involved swabbing and then sending the sample out to a research lab for the analysis. The kits the two companies are making and hoping to submit to the FDA by the end of the year would give an answer immediately. That GSK-Mammoth vision would mark a turning point not only for the pandemic — demarcating a world, already articulated by others, where diagnostic tests are nearly as commonplace as ticket checks or as temperature readings have already become in some areas — but also for CRISPR itself.
In the decade since CRISPR was pioneered by Doudna and Zhang at UC Berkeley and MIT, the technology has attracted an almost mystical lore when it appeared in the popular press: a powerful tool that can cut and paste the code of life, cure genetic diseases and make dystopic changes to human evolution. The tool itself, though, has so far remained in research labs, having been used on patients only in a handful cases and conditions. Widespread Covid-19 CRISPR tests could have thousands of people using it daily.
”It allows you to think even more broadly, right? Now we’re starting to see people think about CRISPR as an antiviral — to find the virus and destroy it,” Martin said. “When you start thinking about CRISPR in these different ways, it expands the potential of CRISPR even more, which is exciting because it’s already an extremely versatile tool.”
That vision, though, may not come for a while. Or a while, by pandemic development standards: 2021. For now, Mammoth is awaiting a decision for the emergency use authorization they filed recently, which would make them the second approved CRISPR diagnostic test after Sherlock and set them up for use in doctors offices. Zhang has also talked about the potential for Sherlock’s test to be used at home, although it’s not yet approved for that setting.
Both Sherlock and Mammoth have been working on their tests for months now, with Mammoth publishing their protocol last month, but developing something that works is not the same as developing one any person could use. To make the initial CRISPR test, Mammoth took the SARS-CoV-2 genome and scanned it for sequences that are on the virus but not in humans, selecting one. It then developed a CRISPR tool with a guide protein that, when it sees the sequence, begins cutting not only that specific sequence but other molecules, to create more material that can later be picked up by the test.
”You go from binding a single molecule — say Covid-19 — to cleaving many orders of magnitude more,” Martin said. “It’s a signal amplification.“ The sample can then be added to a small cassette that indicates positive or negative by giving a color change, or involve reporter molecules that give off florescence
For an at-home test, though, you have to build a test that does all that but requires few moving parts, only essentially a single swab and an insertion. “You want to really make sure that this is a test that is truly accessible; it’s not something where you have a bunch of user steps where you’re kind of mixing something and then you’re putting it in this thing and and then you’re taking it over here,” Martin said.
Experts debate whether a take-home test will have a large impact on public health and curbing future outbreaks — one Imperial College of London report estimated routine screening of people with no symptoms would be most effective in at-risk populations and therefore reduce transmission by about a 3rd — but at minimum, the test should add another way of getting a quick diagnosis. It works under 20 minutes, as fast as the fastest PCR tests and the recently approved antigen test. And it can detect the virus earlier than an antigen test will.
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