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Could gene drives help reduce transmission of prion diseases?

Prion diseases, a group of fatal neurodegenerative disorders that includes chronic wasting disease (CWD), are highly transmissible in cervids (mammals of the deer family). Hunting and culling are two of the main strategies currently being used to counter the spread of CWD, but growing disease prevalence and potential concerns that it could eventually spread to other mammals (including humans), are encouraging researchers to look for novel control strategies.

Inspired by demonstrations of gene drive in caged mosquito species, scientists at the University of Alberta are investigating whether a CRISPR/Cas9-based gene drive mechanism could help to eliminate it. The new approach focuses on the development of a gene drive system that could, in principle, be used to promote the spread of a disease-preventing allele in the target population. If proven effective, the gene drive system could be used to drive resistance to prion diseases in cervid populations.

Since its discovery in Colorado in the 1960s, CWD has spread to 26 U.S. states, three Canadian provinces, and South Korea. Cases have also been found in several European nations. CWD poses enormous issues for the deer hunting and agricultural sectors, with disease frequency in wild cervids topping 30% in certain endemic areas of North America.

As the development of gene drive in mammals is still in its early stages, the feasibility of such an approach remains to be confirmed. However, in the face of current challenges, exploring gene drive could provide a potential innovative solution to complement existing methods for preventing the disease in cervids and other mammals.

The full study is available on Plos One

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