Matt Moscou's plant discovery leads to human leukaemia treatment

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Doctors have cured a one-year-old girl of leukaemia using a technology developed by TSL scientist Dr Matt Moscou.

Dr Moscou, whose research centres on how some plants are susceptible to diseases while others are not, developed a new genome editing technique as a side interest to his research into plant disease immunity at his former institute, Iowa State University.

Now, that technology has been used to precisely edit the genes in bone marrow tissue that was removed from the patient, in order that it can be reintroduced back into the patient and promote the establishment of a second bone marrow transplant.

“This is a very cool application of the technology,” said Dr Moscou. “Although the original motivation was for reducing crop losses due to pathogens, the broader range of the discovery is substantial.”

Dr Moscou was looking at the effect of the bacterium Xanthomonas on crops. Genes within the pathogen cause it to manipulate the plant’s own sugar production, increasing sugar in order to feed the bacterium which in turn has a detrimental effect on the plant.

In order to study how this works, Dr Moscou discovered the TAL technologies, which enabled him to understand how the genes within the bacteria could change the sugar response in the plant.

“The irony is that bacteria which causes diseases in plant has led to a technology that saves human lives,” he said.

Dr Moscou, along with Prof. Adam Bogdanove, were one of two teams which made similar discoveries independently. Involved in the other team was Dr Sebastian Schornack in the team led by Prof. Dr. Ulla Bonas, who was working in Martin Luther University in Halle, Germany, and who later moved to The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich before settling at his current location at The Sainsbury Laboratory in Cambridge.

Dr Moscou said: “When we made this discovery six years ago we could not have predicted where it would lead today, with a little girl now cured of leukaemia.”