Global Citizen is a community of people like you

People who want to learn about and take action on the world’s biggest challenges. Extreme poverty ends with you.

Krzysztof Niewolny / Unsplash
Health

Researchers Are Using Moths and Magnets to Prevent Genetic Diseases


Why Global Citizens Should Care
Rare diseases affect an estimated 350 million people globally and the large majority are genetic. New gene-editing technology could provide hope for those suffering from genetic diseases and prevent future generations from inheriting them. Join us in taking action here to support health care for all.

While moths and magnets are an unlikely pair, a team of researchers at Rice University recently found that a moth-infecting virus and nanomagnets could be used to prevent genetic diseases like sickle cell, muscular dystrophy, and cystic fibrosis, according to a new study published in Nature Biomedical Engineering.

Researchers are combining magnetic fields with baclo-virus from the alfalfa looper moth to deliver CRISPR/Cas9, a gene-editing system that addresses the root causes of diseases in DNA and supports immunity.

Take Action: Call on World Leaders to Decrease Preventable Deaths and Give Due Attention to Neglected Tropical Diseases

The baclo-virus serves as a vehicle, guiding CRISPR/Cas9 to the right cells inside the body, where it can add, remove, or alter damaged DNA. Baclo-virus is able to carry a remarkable amount of DNA — 38,000 base pairs — which is enough to supply multiple gene-editing units to a target cell, according to the study.

While scientists have experimented with genome editing in the past, this study could be a major breakthrough. Researchers have found a more efficient and precise way to target gene mutation, thanks to magnets.

Once the virus and CRISPR/Cas9 have reached a target cell, magnetic fields are used to activate them and introduce information into the cell.

"The beauty is that when we deliver it, gene editing occurs only at the tissue, or the part of the tissue, where we apply the magnetic field," Gang Bao, bioengineer leading the study told Rice University News and Media.

Their research holds promise for preventing genetic diseases and saving lives around the world.

An estimated 350 million people worldwide suffer from rare diseases — 80% of which are genetic. And so far, treatments are few and far between for genetic diseases like sickle cell, muscular dystrophy, and cystic fibrosis.

Read More: This Zimbabwe-Born Professor Is Fighting the Scourge of HIV in South Africa's Western Cape

Sickle cell, an inherited blood disease that alters the shape of one's cells causing painful infections, is the most common genetic disease. However, there are no standard treatments currently available to those suffering from the disease. It affects an estimated 100,000 people in the US and millions worldwide, and is particularly prevalent in people with African ancestry. Research shows 8% of African Americans have sickle cell.

And cystic fibrosis, along with several other genetic diseases, shows up most frequently in Jewish people of Eastern European descent.

New discoveries in medicine, like the one made by Bao and his team, could reduce genetic diseases among populations that are most vulnerable to them and improve health for all.