Edit on April 23rd 2015: Just three days after posting about “a prudent path forward for genomic engineering” I read this Nature News & Comment article describing the experiments of a research group in Guangzhou, China in which they used CRISPR/Cas9 technology on human embryos (Liang et al. (2015)). [Their article was published open access in Protein Cell and can be found here.] Admittedly, the embryos they used came from so-called tripronuclear zygotes, which are zygotes formed when an egg cell is fertilised by two sperm cells as can happen during in vitro fertilisation. These embryos are therefore not viable in vivo. However, the question remains whether this is “prudent” use of CRISPR technology. On the one hand, yes, if genome-editing in humans is ever going to happen on a regular basis then we need to understand exactly how it works. For instance, they do show that their approach has considerable off-target effects: their guide RNAs were targeting the beta-globin gene (which encodes a subunit of haemoglobin) but DNA breaks were also induced at other sites. On the other hand, experimenting on human embryos will (probably) always be scrutinised with ethical concerns in mind, especially because it is really not clear that genome-editing in human embryos should be the way forward.
Since the last CRISPR update there have been some developments regarding this new genome-editing technique. Leading scientists in the field (Baltimore et al (2015)) met in Napa, California at a bioethics conference organised by the Innovative Genomics Initiative (IGI) to discuss CRISPR policy and make discussion of this topic more visible to and inclusive of doctors, social scientists and the public. They pinpoint four recommendations to be put into immediate action:
- Strong discouragement of “any attempts at germline genome modification for clinical application in humans, while societal, environmental, and ethical implications of such activity are discussed among scientific and governmental organizations”.
- Creation of forums of experts in science and ethics to discuss the potentials and risks of this technology.
- Transparent research to gain a better understanding of how CRISPR works.
- Creation of a “globally representative group of developers and users of genome engineering technology […] to recommend policies”.
I noticed that Feng Zhang of MIT was not a co-author of this paper (and neither was Emmanuelle Charpentier, to my surprise), but maybe this is because he is now or will soon be involved in a “winner-take-all” patent dispute. At the moment, Zhang (and MIT/Broad Institute?) own the rights to CRISPR and claim that they invented the technology first/were the first to make it work. However, their patent application was filed half a year after the Doudna/Charpentier patent in 2012. So now the University of California in Berkeley (where Doudna works) and the University of Vienna (where Charpentier worked) set up a so-called patent interference request and if they are successful they will own CRISPR rights entirely, leaving Zhang with nothing. The whole process is summarised here, from where I also copied this figure, showing the number of papers published on CRISPR in the past ten years:
The graph illustrates how much is at stake during this patent interference process. Equally, the technology is getting attention in non-scientific circles: Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people include Jennifer Doudna (left) and Emmanuelle Charpentier (right) in the “pioneer” category. Here they are last year at the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences ceremony probably looking very much the opposite of what society at large thinks scientists (should) look like:
Baltimore D, Berg P, Botchan M, Carroll D, Charo RA, Church G, Corn JE, Daley GQ, Doudna JA, Fenner M, Greely HT, Jinek M, Martin GS, Penhoet E, Puck J, Sternberg SH, Weissman JS, Yamamoto KR (2015) Biotechnology. A prudent path forward for genomic engineering and germline gene modification. Science 348: 36-38
Liang P, Xu Y, Zhang X, Ding C, Huang R, Zhang Z, Lv J, Xie X, Chen Y, Li Y, Sun Y, Bai Y, Songyang Z, Ma W, Zhou C, Huang J (2015) CRISPR/Cas9-mediated gene editing in human tripronuclear zygotes. Protein Cell: 1-10