In this podcast from the Economist, science editor Alok Jha speaks to Professor Jennifer Doudna, joint Nobel prize winner in chemistry (2020) alongside Professor Emmanuelle Charpentier, about her work on the genome editing approach CRISPR (see BioNews 1067). Here they discussed her research paper, state of the field and future uses, as well as ethical concerns.
This was a great topic to resume my journey with the Progress Educational Trust (PET), having been past genetics editor (2010-2011), as well as working as a human geneticist in the 1990s and early 2000s. But I felt a little daunted and somewhat rusty, having been away from the field and not written for PET for many years.
The subject also resonates with me on a personal level as I live with an 'inborn error of metabolism'. I have a mild form of glycogen storage disease, which as a child meant regular visits to Great Ormond Street Hospital in the 1980s, where I relieved the boredom by listening to Duran Duran on my Sony Walkman. But more about them later!
The podcast began with a chat about Professors Charpentier and Doudna's research from 2012, which is credited with making genome editing easier and more accessible. Here the listener learnt that the work had begun as a study into how certain bacteria protect themselves against viral DNA, where they identified the protein Cas9. They soon realised the importance of this and its potential to act as 'genetic scissors' and give researchers a new approach to manipulate DNA.
Alok has an easy presenting style and Professor Doudna was engaging, which made the introduction to this topic very accessible. They then moved on to talk about the field and how it has developed over the last ten years, and also 'future-gazing', focusing on the healthcare and agricultural implications of this potentially transformative approach. Here they highlighted various applications, including work on sickle cell anaemia and cystic fibrosis, and were cautiously optimistic that if safety and regulatory goals could be met, there was great potential to help individuals living with these conditions. Professor Doudna discussed the advantages of CRISPR over other approaches, emphasising its comparative precision.
They concluded their conversation with a discussion of the ethical implications and did not shy away from controversial topics. In particular, concerns over germline or so-called 'human embryo editing'. Highlighting the infamous case of Chinese scientist, Dr He Jiankui and his team, who claimed to have conducted 'embryo editing' in an attempt to prevent HIV infection (see BioNews 977). He presented the work at a conference in Hong Kong in 2018, an event also attended by Professor Doudna who spoke to the researcher and said that he seemed surprised by the negative reaction. The work received worldwide condemnation, including from the Chinese authorities, who later severely punished him (see BioNews 1029).
In the final section of the podcast, Alok invited the Economist editors Natasha Loder and Oliver Morton, described as the publication's resident technology experts, to comment on the approach and whether they agreed with the optimistic assessment of the field given by Professor Doudna. Here they broadly agreed with her optimism about its potential benefits for healthcare. But noted that in the short term, the greatest potential for this approach probably lay in the agricultural sector, where the development of climate-resistant crops and increased yields were a real possibility.
Although the podcast was about genome editing, the discussion felt strangely familiar, particularly its talk about the benefits and/or risks being just around the corner. And it certainly reminded me of similar debates around the emergence of genetic technologies during the 1990s and completion of a 'rough draft' of the human genome in 2000, and discussion of their implications. Proponents highlighted familiar tropes around the potential to cure diseases or produce drought-resistant crops, while critics raised equally familiar concerns around damaging nature and unforeseen consequences. And having recently seen the 80s pop group Duran Duran at Hyde Park, the debate reminded me of their latest album, which is called 'Future Past', where CRISPR certainly feels like the future, while the ethical discussion felt like the familiar past.
Although this podcast offers a good introduction to the topic and I would certainly recommend a listen, especially as they interview one of the key founders of the field. I was disappointed that the later discussion of the benefits and ethical issues surrounding genome editing were not explored in more depth. Particularly as approaches such as CRISPR have the potential to fundamentally alter the way we view certain genetic traits, and therefore present researchers, clinicians, patients, and lay society with various ethical challenges. As well as raising wider issues, such as 'Who decides what is or is not a desirable genetic trait?' and 'Just because we can alter something, should we always do it?'
I recently turned 50 and as you get older you do tend to reflect on life, and I have wondered what my life would have been like without my metabolic condition. I certainly think that this sparked my interest in human genetics and bioethics. Therefore, my career direction has undoubtedly been influenced by having a genetic condition. But I have also experienced various health difficulties as a result of this. The emergence of technologies such as CRISPR have the potential to prevent such diseases. Would I choose to alter my genes? I can honestly say that I remain completely undecided.