Voets O. et al.
Phenotypic assays using human primary cells are highly valuable tools for target discovery and validation in drug discovery. Expression knockdown (KD) of such targets in these assays allows the investigation of their role in models of disease processes. Therefore, efficient and fast modes of protein KD in phenotypic assays are required. The CRISPR/Cas9 system has been shown to be a versatile and efficient means of gene inactivation in immortalized cell lines. Here we describe the use of adenoviral (AdV) CRISPR/Cas9 vectors for efficient gene inactivation in two human primary cell types, normal human lung fibroblasts and human bronchial epithelial cells. The effects of gene inactivation were studied in the TGF-β-induced fibroblast to myofibroblast transition assay (FMT) and the epithelial to mesenchymal transition assay (EMT), which are SMAD3 dependent and reflect pathogenic mechanisms observed in fibrosis. Co-transduction (co-TD) of AdV Cas9 with SMAD3-targeting guide RNAs (gRNAs) resulted in fast and efficient genome editing judged by insertion/deletion (indel) formation, as well as significant reduction of SMAD3 protein expression and nuclear translocation. This led to phenotypic changes downstream of SMAD3 inhibition, including substantially decreased alpha smooth muscle actin and fibronectin 1 expression, which are markers for FMT and EMT, respectively. A direct comparison between co-TD of separate Cas9 and gRNA AdV, versus TD with a single "all-in-one" Cas9/gRNA AdV, revealed that both methods achieve similar levels of indel formation. These data demonstrate that AdV CRISPR/Cas9 is a useful and efficient tool for protein KD in human primary cell phenotypic assays. The use of AdV CRISPR/Cas9 may offer significant advantages over the current existing tools and should enhance target discovery and validation opportunities.