Gene editing: The promise CRISPR holds to revolutionize our world
CRISPR has rapidly become the most popular gene-editing tool among scientists in fields such as medicine, agriculture, and microbiology. Discovered by Nobel Prize winners Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, it allows scientists to alter the DNA of different organisms with faster results and high precision. We talked with Dr. Jürgen Eckhardt, head of Leaps by Bayer, about the promise that this technology holds and why it is likely to revolutionize health and nutrition.
Jürgen, the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded jointly to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna for the development of the CRISPR technology for gene editing. What was your reaction?
This is great news and well-deserved recognition for their outstanding achievement. CRISPR is revolutionizing biotechnology and is what I’d call a game changer in science. The work of these two leading scientists not only impacts the ways we study genes and their functions, but also offers great promise in diverse fields from medicine to agriculture.
It’s exciting to think about the opportunities to radically improve human health and nutrition. There is tremendous potential for CRISPR to further benefit humanity, from fighting and curing diseases to feeding our growing global population. I expect this powerful technology to continue to drive changes in these fields in the coming decades.
What is CRISPR? And how does the technology differ from other gene-editing tools?
What’s special about CRISPR is that it is so precise – like a pair of microscissors that cuts DNA. We can go into cells to modify DNA in a way that’s comparable to editing a document – allowing scientists to repair genes, for example. Every gene contains a blueprint for protein molecules, each of which performs a specific function. However, if the genetic code contains a fault, this produces a defective protein, which can cause hereditary diseases. But the CRISPR technology now enables researchers to locate defective gene sequences, cut them out and insert healthy sections. Compared to other tools used for genetic engineering, CRISPR is precise, cheap, easy to use, and an extremely versatile technology. With CRISPR, we can edit the genomes of everything from wheat to mosquitoes to humans in a precise and cost-effective way. There are thousands of applications for CRISPR.
What do you see as the most exciting potential applications of CRISPR?
This technology will revolutionize medicine. I truly believe that one day we may be able to use gene editing to cure diseases once and for all. At Leaps by Bayer, we are investing in the development of CRISPR-based drugs and technologies to move from treatment to cure. Sustainable organ replacement is one area of engagement and investment for Leaps. Worldwide, an estimated 1.5 to 2 million people are on organ transplant waitlists. Only three in 1,000 people die in a way that their organs can be donated. eGenesis, for instance, is a biotechnology company that is utilizing gene-editing technologies for the development of human-compatible organs to address the global organ shortage. This could save lives in a way that was not thought possible just a few years ago.
However, the biggest impact of gene editing, in the next few years, will likely take place in agriculture. The environmental footprint of agriculture has to diminish and farming has to adapt to the rapidly-changing climate. CRISPR could make a substantial contribution to more sustainable agriculture. It could not only create crops that produce higher yields, but also ones that are more nutritious and more resilient against drought and pests, traits that may help crops to cope with climate change.
Research in genomic engineering is moving very quickly. What does the public need to know to keep up?
First of all, I think it’s important to understand that CRISPR is a technology that originates from basic science and that science is vital to the health of our planet and ourselves. All discoveries, whether in biology, chemistry, physics or other fields, come from this kind of research.
And although CRISPR can help solve some of the biggest challenges, it's important to be realistic in our promises to the public. Scientists are still in the earliest stages of figuring out how we can make use of gene-editing tools like CRISPR to change the world for the better. A lot of progress still has to be made.
And finally, although gene editing is a powerful tool, it’s not a cure-all. But it may bring us one step closer to our vision, “Health for all, hunger for none”.
There are also critical voices.
Of course, the power to alter DNA — the source code of life itself — comes with many ethical questions and concerns. On the other hand, if we completely retreat from it, I think that we won't be taking advantage of the actual benefits that this technology might have.
I hope that the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna will trigger a broader discussion about the opportunities gene editing provides. Especially in Europe, we need to create an environment and a regulatory framework that supports the use of such technologies and ultimately breakthrough innovations. Otherwise we may miss chances that others will take.
Did you know…?
CRISPR in the fight against COVID-19
CRISPR is also being leveraged in the fight against COVID-19: The FDA has issued an emergency-use authorization for a CRISPR-based COVID-19 test, which takes under an hour. Scientists are also working to create a version that could be used at home.
In addition, researchers at Stanford have developed a CRISPR-based treatment that destroyed 90 percent of the virus in tests. But like all other potential COVID-19 treatments, there are many regulatory steps to go through before it is approved and can be used in patients.
About Leaps by Bayer
Leaps by Bayer utilizes impact investing to find solutions for some of the biggest challenges of our time in the fields of healthcare and agriculture.
The ten “leaps”
- Cure genetic diseases
- Provide sustainable organ replacement
- Reverse autoimmune diseases
- Regenerate lost tissue function
- Prevent and cure cancer
- Reduce the environmental impact of agriculture
- Cure through microbiome health
- Develop a sustainable protein supply
- Eradicate insect-borne infections
- Drive transformational digital business models