CRISPR, a recently developed gene-editing technology is promoted as a potential solution to numerous diseases, to food security and climate change — even as a way to deliver “designer babies” and bring extinct mammals back to life.
The technology has attracted significant investments and the attention of actors such as Bill Gates and the World Economic Forum (WEF).
But many scientists express concerns about the technology’s potential harmful effects.
In interviews with The Defender, Dr. Michael Antoniou, head of the Gene Expression and Therapy Group at King’s College London, and Claire Robinson, managing editor of GMWatch, provided insights into the flaws of this technology, its potential consequences and the risks associated with not regulating it sufficiently.
What is CRISPR?
CRISPR — which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats — acts as a “precise pair of molecular scissors that can cut a target DNA sequence, directed by a customizable guide.”
Put differently, this technology allows scientists to edit sections of DNA by “snipping” specific portions of it and replacing it with new segments. Gene editing is not a new concept, but CRISPR technology is viewed as being cheaper and more accurate.
This stems from the 2012 discovery that RNA can guide a Cas protein nuclease to any targeted DNA sequence, and to (theoretically) target only that one specific sequence. Indeed, CRISPR technology is often referred to as CRISPR-Cas9 for this reason.
The Media and many scientists have expressed optimism about the technology.
Medlineplus.gov, for instance, said CRISPR “has generated a lot of excitement in the scientific community because it is faster, cheaper, more accurate, and more efficient than other genome editing methods.”
Wired, in 2015, described CRISPR as “revolutionary,” writing that it had “already reversed mutations that cause blindness, stopped cancer cells from multiplying, and made cells impervious to the virus that causes AIDS.”
The technology also made wheat “invulnerable to killer fungi,” and altered yeast DNA “so that it consumes plant matter and excretes ethanol,” according to Wired.
In the same article, Wired wrote that “Technical details aside, CRISPR-Cas9 makes it easy, cheap, and fast to move genes around — any genes, in any living thing, from bacteria to people.”
A scientist quoted in the story added, “These are monumental moments in the history of biomedical research.”
Bloomberg, in 2016, said CRISPR will “change the world,” quoting scientist Andrew May of Caribou Biosciences, who described CRISPR as “potentially, a cheap and quick way to fix anything about a genetic code” and “almost as fundamental as the transistor.”
The discovery of CRISPR’s gene-editing applications was viewed as so significant that two scientists, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, even as a patent dispute between Doudna and another scientist, Feng Zhang — also viewed as instrumental in CRISPR’s development — continues to this day.
Other scientists, though, do not share the same optimism about CRISPR.