Targeting Conserved Sequences Circumvents the Evolution of Resistance in a Viral Gene Drive against Human Cytomegalovirus

M. Walter, R. Perrone, E. Verdin and F. Goodrum,  Journal of Virology,  95:e00802-21. 2021.

Gene drives are genetic systems designed to efficiently spread a modification through a population. They have been designed almost exclusively in eukaryotic species, especially in insects. We recently developed a CRISPR-based gene drive system in herpesviruses that relies on similar mechanisms and could efficiently spread into a population of wild-type viruses. A common consequence of gene drives in insects is the appearance and selection of drive-resistant sequences that are no longer recognized by CRISPR-Cas9. In this study, we analyzed in cell culture experiments the evolution of resistance in a viral gene drive against human cytomegalovirus. We report that after an initial invasion of the wild-type population, a drive-resistant population is positively selected over time and outcompetes gene drive viruses. However, we show that targeting evolutionarily conserved sequences ensures that drive-resistant viruses acquire long-lasting mutations and are durably attenuated. As a consequence, and even though engineered viruses do not stably persist in the viral population, remaining viruses have a replication defect, leading to a long-term reduction of viral levels. This marks an important step toward developing effective gene drives in herpesviruses, especially for therapeutic applications.

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Targeting conserved sequences circumvents the evolution of resistance in a viral gene drive against human cytomegalovirus