Skip to main content
Move the World.

The DNA editing tool known as CRISPR has taken medical research by storm, offering up potential treatments from stem cells to gene therapy. But scientists have invented a new use for CRISPR: rapidly diagnosing anything from cancer-causing mutations to viral infections with the ease of an at-home pregnancy test or a blood sugar meter. This could revolutionize diagnosis of things like Ebola and Zika, especially in field hospitals and remote locations, like the Congo.

How It Works: Unlike older methods of gene editing, CRISPR allows you to make extremely specific changes to DNA—the enzyme cuts whatever and wherever you tell it and nowhere else. This makes it valuable for finding and deleting malfunctioning DNA, turning off viruses, or inserting new genes.

But you can also tweak the system a bit to quickly diagnose diseases without a big, expensive lab setup. CRISPR's ability to hunt down very specific strands of DNA can be combined with a fluorescent molecule that literally lights up when it finds its target, like a virus or a cancerous mutation. Combined with proteins called Cas12 or Cas13, after CRISPR homes in on its target, it then cuts a "reporter" molecule, causing it to glow. They've dubbed these systems DETECTR and SHERLOCK.

Why It's Awesome: This is really exciting for lots of reasons. Unlike many diagnostic tools, which are often just looking for indirect signs of cancer or infection (like proteins or antibodies), these tests are identifying specific strands of actual viral DNA, making them much more reliable. They can also distinguish between different strains of the same virus. Recent advances have made SHERLOCK almost four times more sensitive, meaning it can detect infections earlier, and also tell you (roughly) how far along those infections are. Another paper explains how doctors could customize the test in less than a week to test for a specific new mutation they're worried about.

Why It Could Change Everything: The best part is that scientists have figured out how to put the tests into strips of paper, like a pregnancy test, which could be mass produced, stored at room temperature, and used in the field with no need for special instruments. As one paper put it, CRISPR has created a "portable, rapid, and quantitative detection platform" for viruses from HPV to Dengue and Zika. It could be especially valuable at the front lines of Ebola outbreaks in Congo and West Africa, allowing fast and early diagnosis of potential infections, and also telling doctors what strain they're dealing with, which could tell them what vaccine to distribute.

More About

Dispatches
Mosquitoes Are the Deadliest Animals in History. Should We Wipe Them Out?
Mosquitoes Are the Deadliest Animals in History. Should We Wipe Them Out?
Dispatches
Mosquitoes Are the Deadliest Animals in History. Should We Wipe Them Out?

The world's richest and poorest people are teaming up against our deadliest predator.

By Dan Bier

The world's richest and poorest people are teaming up against our deadliest predator.

Dispatches
The First Private Moonshot Is Ready to Launch
The First Private Moonshot Is Ready to Launch
Dispatches
The First Private Moonshot Is Ready to Launch

The Israeli group's moon mission will be ride-sharing on a SpaceX rocket.

By John Horack

The Israeli group's moon mission will be ride-sharing on a SpaceX rocket.

Science
Making Tumors Glow to Improve Cancer Surgery
Making Tumors Glow to Improve Cancer Surgery
Watch Now
Science
Making Tumors Glow to Improve Cancer Surgery

This surgeon is improving surgery by lighting up cancer cells.

Watch Now

This surgeon, Dr. Sunil Singhal, is making tumors glow to help doctors ensure they have removed all of the cancer cells at the surgery site. Completely removing cancer tumors can be difficult, and if a small amount remains, the cancer can recur. Sunil, the director of the Thoracic Surgery Research Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, came up with the idea of using glowing tumors to advance cancer surgery after…

Superhuman
Can Virtual Reality Help Fight the Opioid Crisis?
Can Virtual Reality Help Fight the Opioid Crisis?
Watch Now
Superhuman
Can Virtual Reality Help Fight the Opioid Crisis?

VR has long been seen as an escape from the real world. But recently researchers have been putting an unexpected…

Watch Now

Opioid addictions have become a dangerous side effect for many that take medications to treat chronic pain. To address this, doctors are exploring alternatives to prescriptions pain medicine. As part of this movement, Dr. Brennan Spiegel at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles has spear-headed some pretty fascinating research. He and his team are using virtual reality to reduce pain. Not only is it surprisingly effective when a patient has the…

Science
Could This Revolutionary Football Helmet Protect Players and Save the Game?
Could This Revolutionary Football Helmet Protect Players and Save the Game?
Science
Could This Revolutionary Football Helmet Protect Players and Save the Game?

As more and more former football players exhibit symptoms of CTE, one company thinks their new helmet can address the…

By Oliver Katz

As more and more former football players exhibit symptoms of CTE, one company thinks their new helmet can address the problem of player safety.

Coded
Nico Sell on Recruiting Hackers for Good
Nico Sell on Recruiting Hackers for Good
Coded
Nico Sell on Recruiting Hackers for Good

Why we should teach kids how to hack and encourage them to use their new-found talents for good.

By Michael O'Shea

Why we should teach kids how to hack and encourage them to use their new-found talents for good.

Superhuman
Gaining Independence with the World's Most Advanced Prosthetic Arm
Gaining Independence with the World's Most Advanced Prosthetic Arm
Watch Now
Superhuman
Gaining Independence with the World's Most Advanced Prosthetic Arm

Jerral was hit by a roadside bomb in Iraq and left paralyzed. Now he's partnering with researchers to regain his…

Watch Now

Jerral was serving in Iraq, his tank was hit by a roadside bomb. The attack left him paralyzed and without his left arm. But rather than letting his injuries define him, Jerral is fighting back with the help of the world’s most advanced prosthetic arm. He’s working with a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins to test the arm that could help Jerral and many other wounded vets like him…

Will Robots Steal Our Jobs?
Will Robots Steal Our Jobs?
Will Robots Steal Our Jobs?

Could exoskeletons help us do our jobs? Should we actually be afraid of robots taking our jobs? These are the…

By Mike Riggs

Could exoskeletons help us do our jobs? Should we actually be afraid of robots taking our jobs? These are the latest stories from the frontlines of the robotic world.

Science
The Fascinating Story of How AIDS Activism Helped Usher in a "Right to Try" Movement
The Fascinating Story of How AIDS Activism Helped Usher in a "Right to Try" Movement
Science
The Fascinating Story of How AIDS Activism Helped Usher in a "Right to Try" Movement

Should terminally ill patients be allowed to try experimental procedures? Hear the amazing, true story of the AIDS activists who…

By Scott Shackford

Should terminally ill patients be allowed to try experimental procedures? Hear the amazing, true story of the AIDS activists who fought for a "right to try." And won.