A court fight over the legal rights to the CRISPR-Cas9 gene modification method has begun (1). No one can judge precisely how much this new technology will be worth, but winning the epic battle to own it could bring enormous fortunes to scientist-inventors and their institutions. And it will have important implications regarding how CRISPR genomic modification is employed and where.
CRISPR technology grabbed wide public attention with the announcement of experiments using human embryos (2). Recognizing the fast-evolving technology was certain to create serious conflicts, a group of scientific leaders called for a moratorium on controversial facets of work and a public planning effort (3). This action paralleled the approach of the celebrated 1975 Asilomar Conference which established how the scientific community would regulate and pursue recombinant DNA research. Reminiscing about that particular milestone of scientific community self-governance, Asilomar meeting participant and Nobel laureate Paul Berg predicted achieving a similar consensus in the future might be more complicated (4). Noting many emerging scientific issues are embroiled in economic self-interest, ethical dispute and religious objection, he ended his essay with some advice;
“…the best way to respond to concerns created by emerging knowledge or early-stage technologies is for scientists from publicly-funded institutions to find common cause with the wider public about the best way to regulate – as early as possible. Once scientists from corporations begin to dominate the research enterprise, it will simply be too late.”
Dr. Berg wrote his essay in the simpler times of eight years ago. When it comes to CRISPR technology it is no longer possible to distinguish between corporate and academic interests because, having founded their own companies, many of the top scientists are now entrenched deeply in both worlds. The legal combat over who invented – and most important – who owns the CRISPR patent makes it clear the potential financial stakes are enormous and all the involved parties have vested interests. Competing interests may pose some dangers to those who desire to explore and exploit the many uses of CRISPR genetic modification technology.
Certain aspects of CRISPR genomic alteration research may be controversial and hard to sell to the general public. It is important to keep in mind that the current political climate seems to be one in which facts do not reign supreme, authority figures are subject to challenge and some people are just plain angry. The election of Donald Trump has drawn attention to shifting public sentiments (5), but complex forces, in some cases augmented by the scientific community (6), have been roiling the environment for some time. It may come as news to some scientists, but they have active opponents and simply marshaling facts and evidence has not dissipated the impact of organized anti-science campaigns. Unfortunately, researchers focused on achieving new goals have failed to appreciate their situation and at times almost seem eager to discredit themselves in the public eye. Impatience with rules has enticed investigators to seek locations with less restrictive regulations (7), but not respecting sensitivities regarding human reproduction ended up producing an almost instantaneous political backlash (8). Anxious to proceed with their work, some investigators have pushed for regulatory approvals by pointing out the same procedures are allowed elsewhere. Clearly they are speaking the truth, but failing to recognize the but-everyone-will-go-elsewhere complaint does not constitute a scientifically or medically valid rationale for governing body authorization.
This is not a call for scientists to decline to pursue potentially lucrative opportunities or an insinuation that anyone who does cannot be trusted. However, I am suggesting the involved parties will be wise to be mindful of the optics. Scientists offering opinions and advice to the public will be best served by being proactive and explicit about any competing interests. It is also extremely important for enthusiastic proponents not to over-promise what CRISPR genetic manipulation technology will deliver. George Church and Ed Regis suggest in their book, Regenesis (9), public reluctance to accept a new technology will change if and when it produces consistently successful results (page 85). CRISPR technology has immense promise, but this research is just beginning and experience already confirms not every great concept will work as originally sketched on the drawing board. Creating CRISPR tools to search out and destroy human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) genomes hidden in the DNA of patients looked like an ideal method to eradicate infections. Unfortunately, the adaptable virus was able to evade CRISPR extermination (10) and a magnificent theoretical concept failed when put to the test.
The self-disseminating forms of CRISPR known as gene drives may give humans the capacity to alter the genetic composition of entire species (11). Recognizing both the potential benefits and dangers of these creations, Dr. Kevin Esvelt is working to build public trust through education and developing the means to conduct gene drive research collaboratively (11). Sadly, other gene drive proponents have taken a far riskier course. Alleging a totally untested method is a proven cure for malaria, they unleased a broad ad hominem attack which ultimately equated reservations about releasing gene drives with callous ‘white privilege’ (12) [Author’s note – I refuse to provide a direct link to this citation]. In our brave new world of distrust of authority, conspiracy theories and disregard for facts, see how long it takes to get that one turned around and used against its originators.
Today’s reality turned out to be more complex than Dr. Berg imagined (4) and the CRISPR mêlée reveals many academic scientists and their institutions clearly stand to reap windfall profits from this technology. Good for them. However, bona fide honest brokers without competing interests may be hard to find so those thrust into the spotlight hoping to convince the public this new research is vital and beneficial may wish to act with caution. Recent developments remind us elite scientific community consensus and public opinion are sometimes two totally different things. The day may come when you need the majority of voters to believe you speak the truth.
(1) S. Reardon. 2016. CRISPR Heavyweights Battle in U.S. Patent Court. Nature, 6 December 2016. http://www.nature.com/news/crispr-heavyweights-battle-in-us-patent-court-1.21101
(2) G. Kolata. 2015. Chinese Scientists Edit Genes of Human Embryos, Raising Concerns. The New York Times, 23 April 2015. http://nyti.ms/1Oisd0J
(3) N. Wade. 2015. Scientists Seek Moratorium on Edits to Human Genome That Could Be Inherited. The New York Times, 3 December 2015. http://nyti.ms/1SAKPXF
(4) P. Berg. 2008. Meetings That Changed the World: Asilomar 1975: DNA Modification Secured. Nature 455:290-291. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v455/n7211/full/455290a.html
(5) J. Tollefson. 2016. Researchers Baffled by Nationalist Surge. Nature, 6 December 2016. http://www.nature.com/news/researchers-baffled-by-nationalist-surge-1.21110
(6) C. Macilwain. 2016. The Elephant in the Room We Can’t Ignore. Nature, 16 March 2016. http://www.nature.com/news/the-elephant-in-the-room-we-can-t-ignore-1.19561
(7) E. Callaway. 2016. U.K. Moves Closer to Allowing ‘Three-parent’ Babies. Nature, 30 November 2016. http://www.nature.com/news/uk-moves-closer-to-allowing-three-parent-babies-1.21067
(8) S. Reardon. 2016. Mexico Proposal to Ban Human Embryo Research Would Stifle Science. Nature, 7 December 2016. http://www.nature.com/news/mexico-proposal-to-ban-human-embryo-research-would-stifle-science-1.21109#/
(9) G. Church and E. Regis. 2012. Regenesis. How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Ourselves and Nature. Basic Books. Philadelphia, PA.
(10) E. Callaway. 2016. HIV Overcomes CRISPR Gene-editing Attack. Nature, 7 April 2016. http://www.nature.com/news/hiv-overcomes-crispr-gene-editing-attack-1.19712
(11) K. Esvelt. 2016. Gene Editing Can Drive Science to Openness. Nature, 8 June 2016. http://www.nature.com/news/gene-editing-can-drive-science-to-openness-1.20043
(12) E. Glasrud and J. Smith. 2015. White privilege? Will Western activists block CRISPR solution to protecting millions of Africans against malaria? Genetic Literacy Project, 9 December 2015.