CRISPR is undoubtedly one of the most impactful scientific discoveries of our lifetime. The gene-editing tool has led to major advancements in everything from agriculture to medicine. Even so, its potential remains largely untapped.
On Wednesday, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences bestowed the Nobel Prize in Chemistry upon scientists Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna. The duo played an instrumental role in turning CRISPR into a viable gene-editing tool. This is the first time the award has been shared exclusively by two women.
Although it has only been widely utilized in the past decade, CRISPR has been around for much, much longer than that. It stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” and is naturally found in bacteria.
In essence, it functions as a sort of immune system that protects bacteria against invaders like viruses. CRISPR works by storing genetic sequences from viruses the bacteria has encountered in the past in-between pieces of repeating DNA. When a virus enters again, the bacteria targets it with enzymes called Cas that essentially tear its DNA to shreds.
Although Charpentier wasn’t the first person to discover CRISPR, the French-born scientist published a study in 2011 that would forever change the way we think of the system. At the time, she wasn’t even trying to research CRISPR. Charpentier was studying strep bacteria, a strain that causes a lot of harm to humanity.
In the process, she and her team uncovered a never-before-seen molecule called tracrRNA that plays a vital role in the CRISPR process.
This discovery led Charpentier to partner with University of California Berkley scientist Jennifer Doudna. Together, they studied a specific form of CRISPR and the Cas9 enzyme. In 2012, the duo became the first to recreate the CRISPR/Cas9 system in a lab rather than isolating it from bacteria.
More importantly, they demonstrated that it is possible to target specific strands of DNA with the system. This opened the door to use CRISPR as a pair of gene-cutting scissors and edit the genome of any living thing.
Legal Disputes Arise
Like many scientific discoveries, the duo’s findings weren’t without controversy. Legal and ethical issues surrounding the use of CRISPR have arisen in the years following Charpentier and Doudna’s discovery.
The duo was engaged in a battle with researchers from MIT’s Broad Institute over the rights to patent CRISPR/Cas9. After filing for the patents in 2012, Charpentier and Doudna were recognized as the creators of the tech that allows CRISPR to work as a gene-editing tool.
Broad Institute researchers filed patents of their own six months later seeking credit for the discovery. They argued that they deserved the rights because their research demonstrated that CRISPR could be used in human cells. Surprisingly, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board ruled in 2017 that the patents rightfully belonged to the Broad Institute.
In the years since then, Charpentier and Doudna have been awarded some of the patents after a declaration of interference was filed. Yet, plenty of disputes remain. Given the many applications of CRISPR, it’s understandable that everyone wants to claim a piece of the innovation.
Fortunately for Charpentier and Doudna, their recently awarded Nobel Prize cements their status as the earliest pioneers of CRISPR. Whether or not that helps in the legal world remains to be seen.
Persistent Ethical Dilemmas
Of course, it’s hard to have a conversation about CRISPR without mentioning the obvious ethical questions surrounding the technology. Studies have shown that the gene-editing tool has tremendous potential for treating certain diseases—including things like cancer, HIV, and even blindness.
That being said, many people still argue that humans shouldn’t be able to manipulate the genome. This is an issue in several areas.
For one, researchers fear that CRISPR tech could face accessibility problems if it is used to cure medical conditions. In the same way that some of today’s life-saving drugs are tagged with ridiculous prices, experts believe that CRISPR treatments could be priced in such a way that everyday people won’t be able to afford them. This is certainly an issue that needs to be addressed before—not after—such treatments are approved for human use.
Meanwhile, others view using tools like CRISPR as “playing God” and argue that it is immoral and unethical to do so—especially without knowing all of the risks involved. This was highlighted in late 2018 when Chinese scientist He Jiankui illegally used CRISPR to genetically modify three babies. The effort, designed to make them resistant to HIV, landed Jiankui in prison and sparked a global debate about the ethics of CRISPR.
As of now, those questions remain unanswered. It isn’t likely that humanity will come to a conclusion anytime in the near future.
What Comes Next?
All things considered, it’s important to remember that using CRISPR could have potential long-term effects on the human race. For instance, should the children altered by Jiankui go on to have children of their own, their edited DNA would be passed on. Those traits would continue spreading through the population with each new generation. Without knowing the risks associated with the CRISPR treatment, that could be a major issue.
It is for reasons like this that humanity must be careful with CRISPR. The technology is powerful beyond measure. Its ability to alter the very code of life is awe-inspiring and should be treated as such. Perhaps CRISPR is safe and can effectively be used to treat illnesses of all sorts. Perhaps it is a way to distance ourselves from more invasive cures and potent medications.
That being said, serious repercussions could also surface in the future. As with any new technology or scientific intervention, the potential for unexpected consequences is always present. When discussing something as important as the human genome, taking risks isn’t a good idea.
For better or worse, the work done by Charpentier and Doudna has changed the world forever. Regardless of how humanity chooses to handle CRISPR technology in the coming years, their names will live in the history books as the pioneers of DNA editing.