On February 17th, the Office for Science and Technology met with Jennifer Doudna, professor at UC Berkeley and co-discoverer of the CRISPR /cas9 technology (in collaboration with French Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin). This technology not only allows you to modify the genome of any species, easily and at a lower cost, but also allows you to modify the development of new approaches in genetic engineering, with huge potential benefits. Three types of issues were discussed during the interview.
Ethical and Regulatory Issues
Much of the current controversy surrounding CRIPSR / cas9 is in respect to potential research on human embryos. Regarding this subject, Jennifer Doudna is involved in the discussions currently taking place at the highest level on the US side. Recalling the positions taken by the White House, then by Congress by the banning of the use of federal funds in the editing of the genome of human embryos, she has nevertheless emphasized the need to quickly reach a regulatory consensus in order to give a legal and ethical framework for research.
Indeed, at present, if federal funds are excluded from such projects, a research team can theoretically use funds of another nature, without breaking the law. In a broader sense, whatever the scope of application, Jennifer Doudna is calling for a general responsibility of the teams involved, in order to avoid an early government intervention brought about by pressure from its citizens.
According to Pr. Doudna, the most important scientific issues linked to CRISPR/cas9 concern the targeted administration of different biological tissues on one hand, and the control of the natural mechanism of DNA repair used in this method on the other hand. The effectiveness of CRISPR/cas9 shall, in effect, be increased when researchers specifically master the step of repair following the strand break made by the Cas9 protein, thus ensuring the reproducibility of the same operation in each cell. Her laboratory at UC Berkeley now actively works on the resolution of these two challenges.
Professor Doudna has also participated in the creation of the Innovative Genomics Initiative. This institute brings together several laboratories from UC Berkeley, UCSF, and Stanford, in order to ensure the academic and industrial collaboration, essential for the transfer of scientific breakthroughs to the public health system.
For Jennifer Doudna, the economic potential of this technology is huge, with three major fields of application: therapeutics, agrifood (modification of plants and breeding animals for protection against various infections), and synthetic biology (production of biofuels or environmentally inert chemical products).
According to her, the first products to hit the market should be for therapeutic indications, particularly for eye or blood diseases, with which the administration is more comfortable. Other diseases, such as muscular dystrophy or Huntington’s disease are also interesting candidates. She believes that we should see the first clinical trials using CRISPR/cas9 within the next one to two years with treatments available at the earliest within the next five to seven years.
Winner of the 2016 L’Oréal-UNESCO prize For Women Science
Jennifer Doudna is convinced of the importance of engaging educational efforts around this revolutionary method of the editing of the genome, in order to widely explain the benefits and risks. And for that matter, she calls for the organization of events around the world, opening the discussion between scientists, politicians and the general public. On March 24th in Paris, where she will receive, along with Emmanuelle Charpentier, the 2016 L’Oréal-UNESCO prize which distinguishes exceptional women scientists, she will have an ideal forum to get her message across.