A scientist at Utah State University is studying a new biochemical tool that is capable of editing the human genome and may be able to reverse aging. UPR’s Casey Taylor spoke with Dr. Ryan Jackson to learn more about his research.
Casey Taylor: I am here with Dr. Ryan Jackson an assistant professor of biochemistry at Utah State University who is studying a new tool called CRISPR. Dr. Jackson could you please give us a little more background as to what CRISPR is and how it works?
Ryan Jackson: Yeah, sure. CRISPR is something that was discovered, actually, in bacteria. It's an immune system that bacteria use to defend against viruses. So what it allows us to do is create a machine that can target a specific piece of DNA and in a specific spot. Never before did we have such precision at interacting with DNA.
You know, many of us have heard of things, like we know that radiation interacts with DNA, we know that there are such things as GMOs. GMOs use bacteria, a kind of organism that goes in and can place genes and plant DNA. But most of those processes were somewhat random. Now with CRISPR, we have a very precise way to interact with DNA.
Casey Taylor: Okay, so in one of your talks that I was lucky enough to be present for you mentioned how CRISPR can be used for anti-aging purposes to treat diseases such as sickle cell anemia, Alzheimer's, anything that is heavily gene-related. Can you tell us more about how CRISPR can be used in these instances?
Ryan Jackson: Okay, so that's a great question. Let's just talk about the diseases CRISPR is being used for right now. And that would be sickle cell anemia.
So sickle cell anemia, it is a disease that causes red blood cells to have these very, kind of like crescent moon shapes instead of a like doughnut-shaped look and they get trapped in your veins and your arteries. And it can cause pain and can even shorten the lifespan of the patients that have it. This is a genetic disease, which means the gene has passed, you know, from parent to child.
And so the genetic defect is just simply a single base mutation in the gene. And so if we could go in there with CRISPR and just change that single base, then we could cure these individuals of sickle cell anemia. So when we think about something, I think you mentioned Alzheimer's, or aging, which some may scratch their head and say ‘what we can, we can cure aging?’ But the point I want to make is the same. That if it's a biological process that's encoded in our DNA, then we can probably tweak it with CRISPR. Like, that is what we know. We actually know we can do that.
And so there's a difficulty of, you know, there's so many cells and there's so much DNA in an adult organism, how do we deliver at a level, so that if we need to change all the cells to get the result that we want, we have a very steep hill to climb. But if delivery to just a few cells, increases the quality of life of the patient, then we have something we can work with.
Now the same goes with aging. There's this cool experiment that people did with fruit flies. And I can't tell you all the details. But you know, a quick Google search should be able to help you find this. But it was with fruit flies, and they found a gene that they tinkered with, I don't know if they knocked out the gene or just manipulated the sequence of the gene. But it increased the lifespan of this fruit fly significantly, almost 10 times longer than a normal fruit fly lifespan. And there are similar genes in mammals.
And so the take-home here is that aging, our cells age, yes, they age because of oxidative stress and exposure to sunlight and other things. But we also have genes that help fix those, fix those damages, and other things that happen. So, you know, it's now commonly believed that the reason we age because it's programmed in our DNA. So if we could go into our DNA, and first of all, I don't think we know enough about those genes to really know how to cure aging, but to go in, once we do know the information, we could potentially go in and manipulate that DNA so that aging is, you know, manipulated.
Casey Taylor: Alright Dr. Jackson, thank you so much for coming. It was a pleasure to talk with you and I look forward to hearing more about your future research.
Ryan Jackson: You’re welcome.