After briefly fading from the media spotlight, CRISPR, the genome-engineering tool that caused widespread consternation at the end of 2015, when a Chinese group first reported applying the technique in (non-viable) human embryos, is staging a comeback in the public eye amidst an ongoing patent dispute between UC Berkeley and the Broad Institute.
Granted, the proportion of the population that cares deeply about genome editing pales in comparison to the number of concerned individuals asking Google about Zika Virus.
And even the fearsome zoonotic flavivirus cannot hold a candle to the mind-share occupied by one particular orange-haired candidate in the American presidential campaign.
Despite The Donald’s seeming omnipresence, serious thinkers continue to develop innovative new uses for CRISPR, while considering the implications of their advancements. The master-of-multiplexing and next-gen seq-superstar George Church recently sat down for a conversation with Edge to discuss the past, present, and future of genome engineering. From growing organs for transplantation in massively modified pigs lacking all 62 endogenous porcine retroviruses to potentially de-extinct-ing the passenger pigeon, the applications seem limitless.
Church couched his optimism with acknowledgement that the fickle forces of public opinion sometimes run counter to scientific consensus, saying:
“It’s an extraordinarily exciting time for scientists, in particular, those involved in reading and writing genomes. It should be an exciting time for everybody and also a scary time for scientists and everybody, where an increasing number of decisions of politicians, CEOs, and regular citizens depend on some technical nuance and expertise.”
One effort to introduce nuance to the discussion, December’s International Summit on Human Gene Editing, gave eminent researchers from across scientific disciplines, along with ethicists, historians, and philosophers a public platform to air concerns and attempt build consensus on a morally acceptable future for the field.
Leading up to the summit, prominent researchers called for open discussion to establish a prudent path forward for research. Scholars wrote insightful articles, such as Sheila Jasanoff, J. Benjamin Hurlbut, and Krishnau Saha’s discussion of potential socioeconomic and democratic issues surrounding access to genome-editing. Even theologians used CRISPR as a jumping off point to ponder the philosophical implications of human enhancement; Gilbert Meilaender, writing for The New Atlantis mused on the muddy moral strictures and sometimes difficult to distinguish ethical boundaries between disease cures and performance-enhancing drugs.
Genome-engineered mutant children with fabulous hair have, as yet, failed to materialize, and most mainstream media outlets have, predictably, lately devoted less attention to CRISPR. News coverage of controversial technologies typically follows an issue attention cycle, first described by Anthony Downs in 1972. After the initial flurry of excitement during the discovery phase, shiny new innovations fade from prominence when the cold-hard realities, costs, and complexities come to light.
However, investors are paying close attention to the unfolding patent battle over CRISPR (the dialogue is becoming increasingly hostile, according to published transcripts). Biotech industry companies are battening down the hatches against a volatile venture capital climate. Editas Medicine’s stock price is plummeting, although the financial news isn’t universally bleak: Bayer recently announced a 325 million euro investment in CRISPR Therapeutics.
Early talks between parties in the patent scuffle seem to indicate that the Broad Institute may prevail, according to Sharon Begley, writing for STAT news. However, given the Gordian Knot of complexity that is United States Patent Law, observers should take care to avoid over-interpreting preliminary data from the dispute. These first salvos haven’t even established what issues are the most important things to fight about yet, according to Andrew P. Han in a piece for GenomeWeb.
While lawyers battle in court, researchers have been hard at work in the lab. In the past month reports have surfaced describing the use of CRISPR to eliminate HIV-1 genomes from human T-cells, implement the tool in two previously genetically intractable new organisms (lampreys and the methylotrophic yeast, Pichia pastoris), fluorescently label and track RNA in live cells, and even teach undergraduates Drosophila genetics in a laboratory course.
New developments continue to pour forth almost daily. The technology directly influences thousands of publications, millions of research dollars, and untold billions of DNA base-pairs. However, questions surrounding the safety and efficacy of the tool, including the propensity to make off-target mutations, still remain, as noted by Mary Bates in a piece for IEEE PULSE.
Regardless of the outcome of the legal disputes, the community will likely continue to adopt and adapt this phage-defense system from single-celled organisms to benefit humanity. Few could predict that yogurt-producing bacteria would yield one of the most transformative tools in modern genetic research, though synthetic biologists are quick to recognize the power of using systems from life to benefit humanity.
As a community, Synthetic Biologists can ensure public support for their efforts through continuous open discourse. As George Church noted to Edge, scientists who don’t engage give up their right to gripe when decisions get made without their input, saying:
“Don’t complain about being excluded from a discussion if you’re excluding yourself from that discussion. That’s the power of the community of intellectuals that are trying to reach out to everybody in the world. It’s not intended to be an exclusive club. It’s intended to be a conversation.”