COLLABORATION

Playing God?: University of California & GSK invest in the future of CRISPR

SOURCE: Yurchanka Siarhei/Shutterstock
Despite its ethical implications, the benefits of CRISPR cannot be overstated.

You’ve no doubt heard of the term CRISPR. Perhaps it sounds familiar but you can’t quite put your finger on where you’ve heard it before. You may not know exactly what it is but it’s likely you’ll associate it with vaguely negative connotations.

That’s an understandable reaction given the media attention CRISPR has received in recent months.

The genome editor made headlines in November when Chinese scientist He Jiankui claimed he helped make the world’s first genetically edited babies – twin girls whose DNA he said he altered using CRISPR.

CRISPR technology is a simple yet powerful tool for editing genomes. It allows researchers to easily alter DNA sequences and modify gene function.

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He told the media he altered embryos during fertility treatments to try to make the two children resistant to the HIV virus. His research was carried out in China as it’s banned in the US due to fear the DNA changes can pass to future generations and risk harming other genes.

He’s work was quickly and widely condemned by the medical world. Not only was his methods found to be sloppy and ill-considered, but it also raised questions of ethics and if it’s okay for science to play God.

All the attention proved embarrassing for the Chinese government and He paid a hefty price for exposing the experiment. Fired from his job, He is being kept under house arrest, and has been denounced by his colleagues.

Despite the backlash, attempts at gene editing babies has not gone away. CRSIPR was back in the news last week after Denis Rebrikov told the scientific journal Nature he is considering replicating He’s work by implanting gene-edited embryos into women, possibly before the end of the year if he can get approval by then – a risky statement to make at any time, but particularly inopportune now. Just a week prior to Rebrikov’a decision, news broke that He’s experimental twins likely face a premature death due to the doctor’s genetic intervention.

As a result of all of the ethical implications, CRISPR has become almost a dirty word in the news cycle. But to dismiss this tool so easily is to misunderstand it and to completely disregard the hugely beneficial potential it holds.

While many, understandably, see the ethical pitfalls, for others, the benefits of CRISPR cannot be overstated.

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For the first time in history scientists are talking about cures for some of the most awful genetic diseases afflicting mankind. Unlike other genetic engineering tools, CRISPR is cheap, relatively easy to use and precise, making previously untestable theories open for investigation.

Significant progress has been made in the fight against cancer after researchers used the technology to uncover which gene fusions are critical for the growth of cancer cells. Scientists are also working on genetically modifying T-cells using CRISPR to locate and kill cancer cells.

It’s potential for genetic diseases is even more far-reaching with hopes CRISPR technology can cure diseases such as diabetes, cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease, and muscular dystrophy.

Another key area CRISPR could be set to revolutionise is drug research and drug discovery.

Technology Co-Inventor CRISPR-CAS9 Jennifer Doudna speaks onstage at WIRED Business Conference Presented By Visa At Spring Studios In New York City on June 7, 2017 in New York City. Source: Brian Ach/Getty Images for Wired/AFP

Some drug companies are already incorporating CRISPR technology in their work, one of which is pharma giant Glaxo Smith Kline (GSK).

The company has just teamed up with the co-inventor of CRISPR herself, Jennifer Doudna, at UC Berkeley to form a new laboratory in San Francisco that will exploit the genome editor to screen for new drugs.

The Laboratory of Genomics Research (LGR) will receive US$67 million over five years to fund facilities, as well as the employment of 24 full-time university employees, plus up to 14 full-time GSK employees.

“Ultimately the goal is to deepen our understanding of genetics and discover new targets, and to create next-generation technologies that will become future standard practice for the pharmaceutical industry,” the British pharma giant said in a statement.

“The LGR represents a novel hybrid model that brings together industrial and academic researchers under a single roof working on projects both together and independently. The outputs of those research projects will be focused on technologies, new drug targets and biological mechanisms that will foster both academic and industrial advances.”

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In keeping with UC’s public mission, the tools that are developed in the lab will be described in published papers, subject to intellectual property provisions, and will be available for use by other academic and non-profit labs.

Having already achieved so much in her field, Doudna is excited about where this new collaboration could lead CRISPR and the future of medicine in general.

“Over the last seven years, CRISPR has transformed academic research, but until the LGR, we haven’t had a focused effort to catalyse the kind of research we know will lead to new innovation using this CRISPR tool,” she said in a statement.

“LGR is about building that space where creative science is partnered with the development of robust technology that will help develop tomorrow’s drugs. I think we’re going to be able to do science that none of us can even imagine today.”