Editors of the Science journal named gene editing mechanism CRISPR as “Breakthrough of the Year”. The announcement came right after the journal Nature gave Chinese researcher Junjiu Huang a place in the top 10 of important people during 2015 thanks to his pioneering use of CRISPR to edit the DNA of non-viable human embryos.

The CRISPR system was in headlines last month when researchers from the University of California — Irvine and San Diego — discovered that the CRISPR technique could be used to edit the genes of mosquitoes, making them and 97% of their offspring unable to host and thus transmit malaria.

More recently, the gene editing system made it to the public eye again as world leaders, scientists and policy makers gathered in Washington to discuss the ethic implications of CRISPR.

Rodger Novak, CEO of CRISPR Therapeutics, Breakthrough Prize laureates Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier with IGI Scientific Director Jacob Corn. Credit: Rodger Novak/Innovative Genomics

CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. It is a technology that facilitates gene editing on living organisms by targeting and changing genes on a cell’s DNA.

CRISPR works with RNA and the Cas9 protein, the former to match the desired gene’s code. It then sticks together with Cas9, guiding the protein to the targeted gene in order to cut its DNA strands. As the cell tries to repair the breach, scientists can insert an additional piece of DNA to rewrite the genetic code as they prefer.

Even though gene editing has been around since the decade of the seventies, the CRISPR system is significantly easier and cheaper to perform, not to mention it has an elevated rate of success. It doesn’t come as a surprise that the technology has been the starting point of plenty of researches this year.

But because CRISPR makes altering living organism easier and more accessible, it has caused controversy on the scientific community — which is precisely what lead to the three day conference in Washington.

Jennifer Doudna from the University of California Berkeley, co-inventor of CRISPR, and other scientists, fear that the method could be used on viable human embryos, which could lead to undesirable consequences.

As University of Utah’s biochemist Dana Carrol explained, scientists could accidentally alter one gene while trying to correct another, and it could happen that such altered gene was transmitted  to the next generation and so on.

Another argument is that the child wouldn’t have a say in their parent’s choice to alter their genes, which some bioethicists consider unfair.

Carroll said that neither the technology or the society is ready yet to take such a big step. “It’s scary for people to think that their genes, or their children’s genes, could be changed by human intervention,” he said.

In the future, the CRISPR system could be used to modify genes in order to prevent genetic diseases such as hemophilia, cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, and other conditions. It could also be applied to enhance food products.

Bayer gets in the race

Giant pharmaceutical company, Bayer, has decided to support for the next five years CRISPR Therapeutics with $300 million. This investment will help develop the CRISPR-cas9 gene-editing technology to treat conditions such as blood disorders, blindness, and congenital heart disease, as Business Insider reported. Moreover, Bayer is also acquiring a very important stake in CRISPR for $35 million.

“This is potentially game changing, but it will take time,” Dr. Rodger Novak, CRISPR Therapeutics’ CEO and cofounder, told Business Insider. “That’s why we did it [partner up] with Bayer. We understand it will take time, but it would take much longer if we didn’t have a partnership like this.”

CRISPR Therapeutics was founded in 2014 by Novak, Shaun Foy, and Emmanuelle Charpentier, who is one of the scientists credited with discovering the CRISPR technique.

Source: Los Angeles Times