The Potential of Using CRISPR to Cure Childhood Blindness

Leber’s is the number one genetic cause of blindness in childhood.

Leber Congenital Amaurosis is an eye disorder that primarily affects the retina, which is the specialized tissue at the back of the eye that detects light and colour. People with the disorder typically have severe visual impairment beginning in infancy, making Leber’s the number one genetic cause of blindness in childhood. It is estimated that Leber’s affects approximately 15,000 people in the West world, and many more in the rest of the world.

Now a person with Leber’s has become the first to receive a CRISPR–Cas9 gene therapy administered directly into their body. The treatment is part of a landmark clinical trial named ‘BRILLIANCE’ which is testing the ability of CRISPR–Cas9 gene-editing techniques to remove the mutations that cause the rare genetic condition. No other treatment is currently available for Leber’s.

The trial is injecting the components of the gene-editing system — encoded in the genome of a virus — directly into the eye, near to photoreceptor cells. The material is then infused back into the patient. The technique is the work of researchers at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, who are collaborating with the pharmaceutical companies Editas Medicine of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Allergan of Dublin.

Leber’s is a particularly attractive target for a gene-editing approach and the BRILLIANCE trial is the first to deploy the popular CRISPR–Cas9 technique — which has been hailed for its versatility and ease of design — directly in the body.

Conventional gene therapies use a virus to insert a healthy copy of the mutated gene into affected cells. But CEP290 is too large to slip the entire gene into a viral genome. Leber’s is caused by mutations in the CEP290 gene which disable light-sensing photoreceptor cells in the retina. But these photoreceptor cells are still present and alive in people with Leber’s.

With BRILLIANCE, gene editing is used to delete a mutation in the gene CEP290 that is responsible for Leber’s. The hope is that the cells can simply be ‘reactivated’ and ‘turned on’ using the CRISPR-Cas9 technique.

Early results from another therapy suggest that it might even be possible to improve vision as a result of the CRISPR-Cas9 technique. ProQR of Leiden, the Netherlands, are treating patients with Leber’s using an experimental treatment called sepofarsen. Early results suggest that sepofarsen, which uses a technique called antisense therapy to correct an Leber’s-causing mutation in RNA made from the CEP290 gene, can also improve vision.

This use of CRISPR–Cas9 in the body is a significant jump from treating cells in a dish. In ophthalmic circles it is akin to space flight versus a regular plane trip. But if we can master this Nobel Prize-winning technology, there are reasons to be optimistic in the role that it might play in the ongoing mission to cure, alleviate and prevent blindness.

Tej Kohli is a techno-optimist and impact investor who backs growth-stage artificial intelligence and robotics ventures through the Kohli Ventures investment vehicle. He is also the owner of the Zibel Real Estate portfolio. Tej Kohli is best known as the founder of the not-for-profit Tej Kohli Foundation whose ‘Rebuilding You’ philosophy supports the development of scientific and technological solutions to major global health challenges whilst also making interventions to rebuild people and communities. Tej Kohli shares his thoughts and wisdom online as #TejTalks and @MrTejKohli. Tej Kohli’s blog is #TejTalks and he is the author of Rebuilding You: The Philanthropy Handbook.