CRISPR (pronounced crisper) technology is going to become more common over the next few years. It’s the cornerstone of gene editing technology and it’s going to force a rethink as to how we prevent and treat diseases and handle food shortages. While there are obvious ethical debates already taken place, and arguments for and against gene editing both have merit, the focus of this article is going to be on the potential benefits and the progress that’s already been made in this divisive yet undeniably fascinating science.
Firstly, it’s important to know that this technology is already advanced. Animal transgenesis first took place over 30 years ago and since then both the scientific community, as well as big pharma and biotech companies have been working on viable and sustainable solutions for humans. Certain crops, including soybeans and potatoes, are already being treated with gene edited cells and hornless cows and gene edited pigs and chickens are already in existence. Importantly, the technology is not one of enhancement but removal – cutting sequences out of DNA. While this is obviously a vast oversimplification, it’s an interesting consideration that gene manipulation is likewise about simplifying and elimination.
Kamel Khalili and his team at Temple University in Philadelphia announced recently a breakthrough that has the medical community enraptured. Khalili and his team infected rats with HIV and then, using CRISPR technology, removed it. This is an important use of terminology, as the genetic editing community does not see themselves as treating or curing anything, they simply take it out. In fact the technology used at Temple University was known as ‘engineered molecular scissors,’and through CRISPR they are already sophisticated enough to remove the targeted sequence, while leaving the rat’s DNA intact. While this is a fascinating breakthrough, in a recent interview with Time magazine Khalili explained perhaps the most exciting part and the reason that medical groups in Third World countries are eager to get their hands on this technology. When talking about the procedure itself, he spoke of the simplicity. Two injections were administered and the molecular scissors targeted the HIV and removed it. Two injections, and one of the most prevalent diseases of the last few decades was removed. It’s very important to note that while the rats were infected at almost a complete cellular level, HIV behaves differently in humans than in rodents. Regardless it’s an exciting first step. The consequences of an injection based cure that can be administered by a qualified nurse obviously has far reaching implications, not only to the HIV community but also to other cancer sufferers as other molecular scissors are developed.
Three start-ups in the US working with CRISPR technology have received significant backing from big Pharma and biotech businesses. Editas Medicine, CRISPR Therapeutics, and Intellia Therapeutics are all staking a claim in this burgeoning industry. The responsibility on their shoulders is significant, with the clock ticking to show evidence to the public that gene therapy is about more than cloning sheep, and can have a real and profound positive impact on the planet.
And so in this most contentious of industries, time constraints are combined with the ethical arguments, and while it’s simple, as in this article, to only focus on the potential benefits, it’s also important to acknowledge that this is manipulation of the building blocks of life and any steps forward should be treated with mature consideration rather than reckless abandon.