Scientists at Peter Mac and the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity (Doherty Institute) have found a way to stop the SARS-CoV-2 virus from replicating in infected human cells, in a major step towards a new treatment for this and future pandemic viruses.

This discovery builds on research which started at Peter Mac in 2019 – when Dr Mohamed Fareh and Professor Joe Trapani showed a CRISPR gene editing tool could be used to eliminate abnormal RNAs that drive children’s cancers.

In collaboration with Director Professor Sharon Lewin and Dr Wei Zhao from the Doherty Institute, this same approach has been shown to suppress replication of the RNA virus SARS-CoV-2 – and importantly its “variants of concern” – in a test tube model.

Published in Nature Communications today, at its core is an enzyme (CRISPR-Cas13b) that binds to target RNAs and degrades part of the virus’ genome needed to replicate inside cells. The collaborating team will now move to test this approach in animal studies and eventually a clinical trial.

Professor Lewin said while the pandemic response was focused on rolling out protective vaccines, there remained an urgent need for treatments specific to COVID-19 patients.

“The flexibility of CRISPR-Cas13 – which only needs the viral sequence – means we can look to rapidly design antivirals for COVID-19 and any new emerging viruses,” Professor Lewin said.

Dr Fareh said there were signs this approach could also be applied to a host of existing viruses and be a game-changer for how they are currently treated.

“Unlike conventional anti-viral drugs, the power of this tool lies in its design-flexibility and adaptability, which make it a suitable drug against a multitude of pathogenic viruses including influenza, Ebola, and possibly HIV,” Dr Fareh said.

Read the paper titled "Reprogrammed CRISPR-Cas13b suppresses SARS-CoV-2 replication and circumvents its mutational escape through mismatch tolerance" in Nature Communications.

This research is funded by the National Foundation for Australia China Relations, National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), Cancer Council Victoria, Peter MacCallum Cancer Foundation.

For more information contact the communications team at either Peter Mac (0417 123 048) or Doherty Institute (0412 103 306).

About Peter Mac
Peter Mac is a world-leading cancer research, education and treatment centre and Australia’s only public health service solely dedicated
to caring for people affected by cancer.

About the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity
Finding solutions to prevent, treat and cure infectious diseases and understanding the complexities of the immune system requires innovative approaches and concentrated effort. This is why The University of Melbourne – a world leader in education, teaching and research excellence – and The Royal Melbourne Hospital – an internationally renowned institution providing outstanding care, treatment and medical research – have partnered to create the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity (Doherty Institute); a centre of excellence where leading scientists and clinicians collaborate to improve human health globally.