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CRISPR gene tool can now test for diseases

Manuel Almagro Riva, Wikipedia

The gene-editing tool CRISPR can be used to rapidly diagnose infectious diseases, researchers show in a new study. They detected viruses like Zika and its close relative dengue, found cancer mutations and quickly spotted single genetic mutations.

Why it matters: The method is faster, cheaper and better than existing ones.

How it works: CRISPR is based on a defense system used by bacteria. It deploys an enzyme that scans a cell's genome to find a particular DNA sequence then snips it, allowing the sequence to then be tinkered with by changing or adding the molecules that form a genetic code. Feng Zhang and his colleagues have now shown that the same technique can be used to test saliva, blood, and other body fluids for the presence of genetic material from viruses and bacteria with a million times more sensitivity than today's most common diagnostic tool.

What to expect next: Commercialization. CRISPR-anything is big business. Venture capital firms, pharmaceutical companies and public stock offerings have already injected a billion dollars into companies harnessing the technology to engineer drugs, speed up livestock breeding, and create disease resistant crops. CRISPR diagnostic tools are likely to clear regulatory hurdles and make their way to market before more controversial gene-editing technologies.

Big picture: Walter Isaacson talked to Axios about the morality of it all.