The Embarrassing, Destructive Fight over Biotech’s Big Breakthrough

5. February 2016

Date: 05-02-2016
Source: Scientific American

The gene-editing technology known as CRISPR has spawned an increasingly unseemly brawl over who will reap the rewards
A defining moment in modern biology occurred on July 24, 1978, when biotechnology pioneer Robert Swanson, who had recently co-founded Genentech, brought two young scientists to dinner with Thomas Perkins, the legendary venture capitalist. As they stood outside Perkins’s magnificent mansion in Marin County, with its swimming pool and garden and a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, Swanson turned to his two young colleagues and said, “This is what we’re all working for.”
That scene came to mind as I sorted through the tawdry verbal wreckage on social media and in print of the “debate” over CRISPR, the revolutionary new gene-editing technology. The current brouhaha, triggered by Eric Lander’s now-infamous essay in Cell called “The Heroes of CRISPR,”  is the most entertaining food fight in science in years.

The stakes are exceedingly high. CRISPR is the most important new technology to hit biology since recombinant DNA, which launched Genentech, made Swanson, along with his colleagues and investors, rich and brought molecular biology, long the province of academia, into the realm of celebrity and big money. In this context, the Cell essay has huge patent and prize implications. Lander has been accused of writing an incomplete and inaccurate history of the CRISPR story, burnishing the patent claims of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass., (he is its director) and minimizing the contributions of rival scientists. A blogger has referred to him as “an evil genius at the height of his craft.” And George Church, a colleague at the Broad Institute, likens Lander to a figure out of a Greek tragedy. “The only person that could hurt him was himself,” he says. “He was invulnerable to anybody else’s sword.” And you thought scientists couldn’t talk smack. Read the rest of this entry »

The Crispr Quandary

10. November 2015

Date: 10-11-2015
Source: The New York Times

A new gene-editing tool might create an ethical morass
— or it might make revising nature seem natural.

Gene EditingOne day in March 2011, Emmanuelle Charpentier, a geneticist who was studying flesh-eating bacteria, approached Jennifer Doudna, an award-winning scientist, at a microbiology conference in Puerto Rico. Charpentier, a more junior researcher, hoped to persuade Doudna, the head of a formidably large lab at the University of California, Berkeley, to collaborate. While walking the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan, the two women fell to talking. Charpentier had recently grown interested in a particular gene, known as Crispr, that seemed to help flesh-eating bacteria fight off invasive viruses. By understanding that gene, as well as the protein that enabled it, called Cas9, Charpentier hoped to find a way to cure patients infected with the bacteria by stripping it of its protective immune system.

Among scientists, Doudna is known for her painstaking attention to detail, which she often harnesses to solve problems that other researchers have dismissed as intractable. Charpentier, who is French but works in Sweden and Germany, is livelier and more excitable. But as the pair began discussing the details of the experiment, they quickly hit it off. ‘‘I really liked Emmanuelle,’’ Doudna says. ‘‘I liked her intensity. I can get that way, too, when I’m really focused on a problem. It made me feel that she was a like-minded person.’’

At the time, bacteria were thought to have only a rudimentary immune system, which simply attacked anything unfamiliar on sight. But researchers speculated that Crispr, which stored fragments of virus DNA in serial compartments, might actually be part of a human-style immune system: one that keeps records of past diseases in order to repel them when they reappear. ‘‘That was what was so intriguing,’’ Doudna says. ‘‘What if bacteria have a way to keep track of previous infections, like people do? It was this radical idea.’’ Read the rest of this entry »