Scientists have developed a technique that can spot gene editing mistakes made to an individual’s genome by CRISPR.

The discovery was made at The University of Texas in Austin and appears in the Cell journal, reports. This has been defined as an important step toward safer gene editing cures for life threatening disorders.

In theory, gene editing should work very much like fixing a recurring typo in a document with an auto-correct feature, but CRISPR molecules – proteins that find and edit genes – sometimes target the wrong genes, acting more like an auto correct feature that turns correctly spelled words into typos. Editing the wrong gene could create new problems, like causing healthy cells to become cancerous.

The newly developed method represents a significant step toward helping doctors tailor gene therapies to individual patients, ensuring safety and effectiveness.

IIlya Finkelstein, an assistant professor in the Department of Molecular Biosciences at UT Austin and the project’s principal investigator, explained, “You and I differ in about 1 million spots in our genetic code. Because of this genetic diversity, human gene editing will always be a custom tailored therapy.”

The researchers used existing laboratory technology to develop CHAMP, or Chip Hybridized Affinity Mapping Platform. The core of the test is a standard next generation genome sequencing chip already widely used in research and medicine. Two other key elements – designs for a 3D printed mount that holds the chip under a microscope and software the team developed for analysing the results – are open source. As a result, other researchers can easily replicate the technique in experiments involving CRISPR.

Andy Ellington, a professor in the Department of Molecular Biosciences and vice president for research of the Applied Research Laboratories at UT Austin, is a co-author of the paper. He believes such methods illustrate the unpredictable side benefits of new technologies.

He commented, “Next generation genome sequencing was invented to read genomes, but here we’ve turned the technology on its head to allow us to characterize how CRISPR interacts with genomes. Inventive folks like Ilya take new technologies and extend them into new realms.”

Carrying out this type of work helps researchers predict which DNA segments a certain CRISPR molecule will interact with even before testing it on an actual genome. This is because they’re uncovering the underlying rules that CRISPR molecules use to choose their targets. Additionally, being aware of these rules leads to better computer models for predicting which DNA segments a specific CRISPR molecule is likely to interact with, thus, saving time and money in developing personalised gene therapies.