New Study Finds CRISPR May Be The Secret To Improving Gut Health
Antibiotics are one of the most lifesaving inventions of all time. But in recent years, we've learned that this group of medications also has a downside, especially when they're overused.
Using antibiotics when they aren't really needed puts us at risk for side effects like nausea, diarrhea, and stomach pain. Why? These drugs aren't selective in their antimicrobial properties, which means they kill off good and bad gut bacteria and make us more vulnerable to gut issues and even—however ironically—infections like C. diff. And then there's the issue of antibiotic resistance, which according to the World Health Organization, is one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today.
Knowing this, it's no surprise that scientists and researchers are searching for an alternative to antibiotics, an alternative that has fewer side effects and won't contribute to antibiotic resistance. And according to a new study, published in the journal Nature Communications, they may have found one.
From Western University, the researchers on the study were the first to propose using a tool called CRISPR to alter the microbiome, positioning it as a potential alternative to traditional antibiotics. Even more, they say it could alter the bacterial composition of the human microbiome in a way that can be personalized, helping kill even infamously difficult bacteria like Staphyloccous aureus or Escherichia coli.
"One of the major reasons that I am excited about this work is that it has a wide range of possible real-world applications," explained Bogumil Karas, Ph.D., assistant professor at Western's Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry. "It has the potential for development of next-generation antimicrobial agents that would be effective even for bacteria that are resistant to all known antibiotics. This technology could also be used to help 'good' bacteria produce compounds to treat diseases caused by protein deficiencies," he continued.
So what is CRISPR? It stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (try saying that 10 times fast). Basically, it's a tool that's used to target specific stretches of genetic code and edit DNA at specific locations. Currently, researchers are using it to modify the genes of living organisms, but according to this new research, it could also be used to target specific bacterial strains, which would help us kill bacteria with a high degree of specificity, something that isn't done very well at the moment.
The research team developed a delivery system that uses bacteria's natural replication mechanisms to deliver CRISPR, which alters the bacterial DNA and kills it—without taking the rest of the beneficial bacteria out with it. As David Edgell, Ph.D. and professor at Western, explained: "Using CRISPR to kill things isn't a new idea because that's what CRISPR does naturally...The problem has always been how you get CRISPR to where you want it to go. Other delivery systems could only go to a few spots, where ours can go anywhere."
This is still a long way off from being used in humans, so in the meantime, make sure you're only taking antibiotics when you really need them. And if you do have to take them, here's how to protect your gut.
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