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 »