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Grant Funding Automated Genome Editing System

Cas9 protein editing a gene

Artist depiction of Cas9 protein editing a gene (Jennifer Doudna, University of California – Berkeley)

17 July 2017. A consortium of companies and university in the U.K. and U.S. are developing an automated desktop genome editing system using the emerging Crispr technique. The system is expected to be based on a single-cell analysis device made by Sphere Fluidics Ltd. in Cambridge, England, and financed by a $1.25 million grant from InnovateUK, a government research and development funding agency.

Genome editing is becoming more widely applied across the life sciences for diagnostics, gene therapy, and regenerative medicine, as well as non-medical uses in agriculture and manufacturing. The most widely used genome-editing technique is Crispr — short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats — a process based on bacterial defense mechanisms that employ RNA to identify and monitor precise locations in DNA. The actual editing of genomes with Crispr uses enzymes that cleave DNA strands at the desired points, with Crispr-associated protein 9, or Cas9, being the enzyme employed for the longest period.

Sphere Fluidics develops automated single-cell analysis instruments using labs-on-a-chip where glass or plastic plates are etched with fine channels through which flow tiny specimen samples the company calls picodroplets. Its systems, says Sphere Fluidics, array the microfluidic chips to simultaneously analyze thousands of picodroplets combined with surfactants for stability, which makes it possible to quickly perform a wide variety of analytical functions, such as for diagnostics or drug screening.

The company’s lead product is the Cyto-Mine that packages its microfluidic technology to perform a range of analytical steps in one desktop system. Cyto-Mine carries out automated single-cell sorting, analysis, and imaging that Sphere Fluidics says can process some 1 million mammalian cells in less than a half-day. Each cell is contained in a picodroplet with growth media, creating in effect its own bioreactor.

The research team plans to extend the Cyto-Mine technology to perform Crispr genome editing. Sphere Fluidics is joined in the project by Horizon Discovery, also in Cambridge, and Twist Bioscience in San Francisco, as well as colleagues from University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Horizon Discovery provides cell lines and reference standards, as well as research services including Crispr-Cas9 for drug screening. Twist Bioscience develops synthetic DNA, including a type of DNA more amenable for Crispr editing.

The initiative is funded by a $1.25 million open-innovation grant from InnovateUK. The competition, now closed, seeks business-led ideas in the U.K. that lead to new products or services, with a clear path to growth, market impact, and return on investment. Priority is given to ideas leading to sustainable productivity gains or access to new overseas markets.

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