Department of Molecular Genetics Thalassaemia, Cyprus School of Molecular Medicine and The Cyprus Institute of Neurology and Genetics, 6 International Airport Avenue, 1683, Nicosia, Cyprus.
Rare diseases pose a global challenge, in that their collective impact on health systems is considerable, whereas their individually rare occurrence impedes research and development of efficient therapies. In consequence, patients and their families are often unable to find an expert for their affliction, let alone a cure. The tide is turning as pharmaceutical companies embrace gene therapy development and as serviceable tools for the repair of primary mutations separate the ability to create cures from underlying disease expertise. Whereas gene therapy by gene addition took decades to reach the clinic by incremental disease-specific refinements of vectors and methods, gene therapy by genome editing in its basic form merely requires certainty about the causative mutation. Suddenly we move from concept to trial in 3 years instead of 30: therapy development in the fast lane, with all the positive and negative implications of the phrase. Since their first application to eukaryotic cells in 2013, the proliferation and refinement in particular of tools based on clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR)/CRISPR-associated protein (Cas) prokaryotic RNA-guided nucleases has prompted a landslide of therapy-development studies for rare diseases. An estimated thousands of orphan diseases are up for adoption, and legislative, entrepreneurial, and research initiatives may finally conspire to find many of them a good home. Here we summarize the most significant recent achievements and remaining hurdles in the application of CRISPR/Cas technology to rare diseases and take a glimpse at the exciting road ahead.