Investigating CRISPR/Cas9 gene drive for production of disease-preventing prion gene alleles

A. R. Castle, S. Wohlgemuth, L. Arce and D. Westaway,  PLoS One,  17:e0269342. 2022.

Prion diseases are a group of fatal neurodegenerative disorders that includes chronic wasting disease, which affects cervids and is highly transmissible. Given that chronic wasting disease prevalence exceeds 30% in some endemic areas of North America, and that eventual transmission to other mammalian species, potentially including humans, cannot be ruled out, novel control strategies beyond population management via hunting and/or culling must be investigated. Prion diseases depend upon post-translational conversion of the cellular prion protein, encoded by the Prnp gene, into a disease-associated conformation; ablation of cellular prion protein expression, which is generally well-tolerated, eliminates prion disease susceptibility entirely. Inspired by demonstrations of gene drive in caged mosquito species, we aimed to test whether a CRISPR/Cas9-based gene drive mechanism could, in principle, promote the spread of a null Prnp allele among mammalian populations. First, we showed that transient co-expression of Cas9 and Prnp-directed guide RNAs in RK13 cells generates indels within the Prnp open-reading frame, indicating that repair of Cas9-induced double-strand breaks by non-homologous end-joining had taken place. Second, we integrated a ~1.2 kb donor DNA sequence into the Prnp open-reading frame in N2a cells by homology-directed repair following Cas9-induced cleavages and confirmed that integration occurred precisely in most cases. Third, we demonstrated that electroporation of Cas9/guide RNA ribonucleoprotein complexes into fertilised mouse oocytes resulted in pups with a variety of disruptions to the Prnp open reading frame, with a new coisogenic line of Prnp-null mice obtained as part of this work. However, a technical challenge in obtaining expression of Cas9 in the male germline prevented implementation of a complete gene drive mechanism in mice.

Diagram of prions in wildlife

image from:
Moazami-Goudarzi, K., Andréoletti, O., Vilotte, JL. et al. Review on PRNP genetics and susceptibility to chronic wasting disease of Cervidae. Vet Res 52, 128 (2021).



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