CRISPR battles on two fronts

20 May 2015

The US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) have launched an initiative to develop guidelines for editing human genomes, using techniques such as CRISPR/Cas9.

The news comes after the announcement last month that Chinese researchers had used CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology to replace a mutated gene from a human embryo. The work was only partially successful and was used on a small number of defective embryos, but it has ignited debate on the ethics of human germline gene editing.

Now the academies have responded to the debate with news that they will hold an international summit in autumn for researchers and other experts to debate the scientific, ethical, and policy issues associated with human gene-editing research. In addition, a working group will be appointed to study the ethical, legal, social and scientific issues involved in germline editing and develop a consensus statement on the practice. A separate advisory committee will also be appointed to guide future decision-making.

A key player in the battle for more discussion on the ethics of editing the human genome was the inventor of the CRISPR technique, Jennifer Doudna. She was delighted with the news, saying: “This is indeed the kind of response we hoped to trigger…whether a larger or more public forum is needed depends on how the initiative proceeds”.

Meanwhile, Jennifer Doudna is involved in a separate battle on the patent rights of the lucrative CRISPR/Cas9 technique. The legal skirmish for the rights to the technology, which could reap billions of dollars, is between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and University of California. 

Currently Fen Zhang from the Broad Institute has received the patent as he submitted lab notebooks indicating that he’d been using the tool before Doudna and her colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier published their work. The University of California, where Jennifer Doudna is from, is appealing the patent decision.  

The lucrative CRISPR/Cas9 is a powerful bacterial defence technology which has been adapted by scientists into a novel form of artificial genome editing. It has potential uses in investigating the role of specific genes in the development of disease, helping to fight against viruses such as HIV, therapeutic applications for people with severe genetic disease and the controversial use in editing mutant genes in human embryos. 

Doudna said: “I really want to see this technology used to help people…it would be a shame if the IP situation would block that”.

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