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Event Review: Spotlight on CRISPR

22 March 2021
Appeared in BioNews 1088

As part of the 'Spotlight on….' series, the MIT Technology Review recently focused their attention on the genome editing 'super tool' CRISPR. An online panel gathered to discuss the current status of CRISPR research, the potential uses of CRISPR and the ethical issues that are raised by genome editing. 

The 'Spotlight on: CRISPR' event was hosted by Antonio Regalado, a journalist for the MIT Technology Review. The panel consisted of 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry winner Professor Jennifer Doudna and documentary filmmaker Adam Bolt. Professor Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley was awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, alongside Professor Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin, Germany, for their pioneering work on CRISPR genome editing. Bolt directed the 2019 documentary film 'Human Nature', which tells the CRISPR origin story and explores how this new technology could change medicine, agriculture and the process of evolution (see BioNews 1028).

Over the course of the 40-minute discussion, the panel explored a wide range of topics including whether it is ethically responsible to make genome changes that could be inherited by future generations, the importance of developing robust research regulations and the potential to combine CRISPR with artificial intelligence systems to improve the accuracy of genome editing. 

Professor Doudna acknowledged CRISPR's power which has created extraordinary opportunities within many different scientific fields, however, she stressed that the technology should be used in a conscientious and ethical manner. She stated: 'It's a tool that requires oversight, it's a tool that requires responsible use. I think it's essential that the scientific community step forward and say this is what is possible, this is what is still science fiction frankly, and here are some hard lines about where it can and can't be used.'  

Regalado enquired whether Professor Doudna used a personal framework to help her decide what CRISPR should and shouldn't be used for. Professor Doudna shared that she felt the best way of identifying the ethical limits of CRISPR was to engage as many people as possible in a public debate by making it clear what the benefits of the technology could be. She called for a 'transparent' and 'open' discussion within the scientific community, but also acknowledged the importance of including as many other stakeholders as possible to enable the wider community to 'evaluate the technology for themselves'. 

During the filming of 'Human Nature' Bolt interviewed a number of scientists, including Professor Doudna, who were using CRISPR for research purposes. Regalado was interested to know whether Bolt thought that CRISPR technology was in 'wise hands'. Bolt shared that he was 'surprised' and 'impressed' by how seriously the scientists were taking their ethical responsibilities. However, he recognised that there were also rogue individuals within the community. 'I learned stuff that made me sleep a little better and then I learned other things that made me not sleep as well. There are people who really want to move quickly and start doing things before they are ready.'

Bolt also outlined how important it was to learn about the history of eugenics, as he felt that the 'dystopian scenario in a lot of ways has already happened', referencing eugenic policies in the 1920s and 30s, including those created by the Nazis.

Genome editing has the potential to cure genetic diseases and dramatically change the way that medicine is practised. While this application of CRISPR is generally supported, some critics believe that this step represents the start of a 'slippery slope' that will eventually lead to the creation of designer humans. In reality, this isn't something that could be easily achieved through genome editing, however, Bolt questioned whether humans would actually want to use CRISPR for this purpose if it was possible.

He said: 'People have other priorities when having children, besides making them the smartest or the greatest athletes. There are a lot more, deeper emotional reasons that people have kids'. He questioned whether this presumed slippery slope would 'lead to the chasm that we think it will' or whether it would lead us to 'somewhere else we are not expecting, which could be good or bad'.

Overall, the event seemed to have two main objectives, the first was to shine a spotlight on CRISPR and the second was to advertise Bolt's film 'Human Nature', which is currently available on Netflix in the UK. While these objectives seem to be compatible on paper, the dual purpose of the event resulted in a discussion that sometimes felt quite disjointed. A lot of different topics were addressed in the discussion that lasted just 40 minutes, which created a discussion with breadth but limited the depth of the conversation. 

It was also difficult to identify who the target audience might be for this event. Viewers would need to have some prior knowledge of DNA, genetics and genome editing in order to be able to follow the discussion as there is only a minimal explanation of what the technology involves. However, viewers who already possess this level of knowledge may not find the discussion to be useful in terms of acquiring new information about genome editing and CRISPR.

Nevertheless, it is always a true joy to hear Professor Doudna speak, she is a passionate advocate for scientific collaboration and is mindful of her ethical responsibilities as a research scientist. The event was also a compelling advert for Bolt's film, which I promptly watched on Netflix after the online discussion, and loved. This is the first talk within the 'Spotlight on... ' series to focus on biotechnology, rather than computer technology, and I hope the exciting world of CRISPR genome editing will encourage the MIT Technology Review team to feature other biotechnology developments in the future. 

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Live Discussion: Spotlight On CRISPR, with Jennifer Doudna and Adam Bolt
YouTube |  16 September 2020
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