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Can CRISPR Avoid the Monsanto Problem?

It is distressing, but a fact, that the more rapidly any technology is adopted by scientists the more likely it is to leave people confused, anxious, and suspicious. This week, I wrote an article for the magazine about just such a revolutionary technique, called CRISPR, that permits scientists to edit the DNA of plants and animals with an ease and a precision that even a decade ago seemed inconceivable.

CRISPR research has already begun to transform molecular biology. There have been bold new claims about its promise and powers nearly every day. Yet, for the past fifty years, at least since Watson and Crick demonstrated that DNA contained the blueprints required to build everything alive, modern science has been caught in a hype trap. After all, if we possess such exquisitely detailed instructions, shouldn’t they be able to help us fix the broken genes that cause so many of our diseases?

The assumption has long been that the answer is yes. And for decades, we have been told (by the medical establishment, by pharmaceutical companies, and, sadly, by the press) that our knowledge of genetics will soon help us solve nearly every malady, whether it affects humans, other animals, or plants.

It turns out, however, that genetics and magic are two different things. Deciphering the blueprints in the three billion pairs of chemical letters which make up the human genome has been even more complex than anyone had imagined. And even though the advances have been real, and often dramatic, it doesn’t always seem that way. This has led many people to discount, and even fear, our most promising technologies. Somehow, we take lessons more readily from movies like “Jurassic Park” and “Gattaca” than from the very real, though largely incremental, advances in medical treatments.

This dangerous disconnect between scientific possibility and tangible results has already caused great harm: a scientifically unjustified fear of G.M.O.s, for example, has prevented many potentially life-enhancing crops from even being tested, let alone planted widely. The death of one patient, in 1999, halted all human-gene-therapy experiments in the United States for several years. We should, of course, be exceedingly cautious with such research, but if the U.S. is going to stop studies that could potentially help millions of people there are costs to that, too. (It’s worth remembering that there are real risks to everything we do: aspirin kills hundreds of Americans every year, and in the first half of 2015 nearly twenty thousand people have died in car accidents.)

Because it makes manipulating genes so much easier, CRISPR offers researchers the ability to rapidly accelerate studies of many types of illness, including cancers, autism, and AIDS. It will also make it possible to alter the genes of plants so that they can resist various diseases (without introducing the DNA of a foreign organism, which is how G.M.O.s are made). With CRISPR, almost anything could become possible: You want a unicorn? Just tweak the horse genome. How about a truly blue rose? The gene for the blue pigment does not exist naturally in roses. With CRISPR, it should be a trivial matter simply to edit that gene in.

Eventually, CRISPR should also permit technicians to edit embryos, which, at least in theory, could change the genetic lineage of mankind. The prospect is at least as frightening as it is exciting, and we need to start talking about that now. In the press, at least, that conversation—about perhaps the most exciting advance in the history of molecular biology—seems to have started. Two of the researchers I focussed on in my piece for The New Yorker have also been featured in other publications in the past two weeks: the Times has a profile of Jennifer Doudna, the Berkeley biochemist who helped figure out how to program CRISPR molecules to edit DNA, and STAT, a new online health and science publication launched by the Boston Globe’s owner, has one about Feng Zhang, a pioneering biologist at the Broad Institute of Harvard and M.I.T., who first made the technology work in mammals. The subject will soon get even more attention. Early next month, the National Academy of Sciences will convene an international conference devoted to the ethical use of this powerful new tool.

Sourced through Scoop.it from: www.newyorker.com

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