Tag Archives: Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR)

CRISPR technology is like a pair of scissors and a dimmer switch?

The ‘pair of scissors’ analogy is probably the most well known of the attempts to describe how the CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)-Cas9 gene editing system works. It seems a new analogy is about to be added according to a January 19 2021 news item on ScienceDaily (Note: This October 30, 2019 posting features more CRISPR analogies),

In a series of experiments with laboratory-cultured bacteria, Johns Hopkins scientists have found evidence that there is a second role for the widely used gene-cutting system CRISPR-Cas9 — as a genetic dimmer switch for CRISPR-Cas9 genes. Its role of dialing down or dimming CRISPR-Cas9 activity may help scientists develop new ways to genetically engineer cells for research purposes.

Here’s an image illustrating the long form of the tracrRNA or ‘dimmer switch’ alongside the more commonly used short form,

Caption: Left – a schematic of the long form of the tracrRNA used by the CRISPR-Cas9 system in bacteria; Right – the standard guide RNA used by many scientists as part of the gene-cutting CRISPR-Cas9 system. Credit: Joshua Modell, Rachael Workman and Johns Hopkins Medicine

A January 19 ,2021 Johns Hopkins Medicine news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, explains about CRISPR and what the acronym stands for, as well as, giving more details about the discovery,

First identified in the genome of gut bacteria in 1987, CRISPR-Cas9 is a naturally occurring but unusual group of genes with a potential for cutting DNA sequences in other types of cells that was realized 25 years later. Its value in genetic engineering — programmable gene alteration in living cells, including human cells — was rapidly appreciated, and its widespread use as a genome “editor” in thousands of laboratories worldwide was recognized in the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry last year to its American and French co-developers.

CRISPR stands for clustered, regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. Cas9, which refers to CRISPR-associated protein 9, is the name of the enzyme that makes the DNA slice. Bacteria naturally use CRISPR-Cas9 to cut viral or other potentially harmful DNA and disable the threat, says Joshua Modell, Ph.D., assistant professor of molecular biology and genetics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. In this role, Modell says, “CRISPR is not only an immune system, it’s an adaptive immune system — one that can remember threats it has previously encountered by holding onto a short piece of their DNA, which is akin to a mug shot.” These mug shots are then copied into “guide RNAs” that tell Cas9 what to cut.

Scientists have long worked to unravel the precise steps of CRISPR-Cas9’s mechanism and how its activity in bacteria is dialed up or down. Looking for genes that ignite or inhibit the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-cutting system for the common, strep-throat causing bacterium Streptococcus pyogenes, the Johns Hopkins scientists found a clue regarding how that aspect of the system works.

Specifically, the scientists found a gene in the CRISPR-Cas9 system that, when deactivated, led to a dramatic increase in the activity of the system in bacteria. The product of this gene appeared to re-program Cas9 to act as a brake, rather than as a “scissor,” to dial down the CRISPR system.

“From an immunity perspective, bacteria need to ramp up CRISPR-Cas9 activity to identify and rid the cell of threats, but they also need to dial it down to avoid autoimmunity — when the immune system mistakenly attacks components of the bacteria themselves,” says graduate student Rachael Workman, a bacteriologist working in Modell’s laboratory.

To further nail down the particulars of the “brake,” the team’s next step was to better understand the product of the deactivated gene (tracrRNA). RNA is a genetic cousin to DNA and is vital to carrying out DNA “instructions” for making proteins. TracrRNAs belong to a unique family of RNAs that do not make proteins. Instead, they act as a kind of scaffold that allows the Cas9 enzyme to carry the guide RNA that contains the mug shot and cut matching DNA sequences in invading viruses.

TracrRNA comes in two sizes: long and short. Most of the modern gene-cutting CRISPR-Cas9 tools use the short form. However, the research team found that the deactivated gene product was the long form of tracrRNA, the function of which has been entirely unknown.

The long and short forms of tracrRNA are similar in structure and have in common the ability to bind to Cas9. The short form tracrRNA also binds to the guide RNA. However, the long form tracrRNA doesn’t need to bind to the guide RNA, because it contains a segment that mimics the guide RNA. “Essentially, long form tracrRNAs have combined the function of the short form tracrRNA and guide RNA,” says Modell.

In addition, the researchers found that while guide RNAs normally seek out viral DNA sequences, long form tracrRNAs target the CRISPR-Cas9 system itself. The long form tracrRNA tends to sit on DNA, rather than cut it. When this happens in a particular area of a gene, it prevents that gene from expressing, — or becoming functional.

To confirm this, the researchers used genetic engineering to alter the length of a certain region in long form tracrRNA to make the tracrRNA appear more like a guide RNA. They found that with the altered long form tracrRNA, Cas9 once again behaved more like a scissor.

Other experiments showed that in lab-grown bacteria with a plentiful amount of long form tracrRNA, levels of all CRISPR-related genes were very low. When the long form tracrRNA was removed from bacteria, however, expression of CRISPR-Cas9 genes increased a hundredfold.

Bacterial cells lacking the long form tracrRNA were cultured in the laboratory for three days and compared with similarly cultured cells containing the long form tracrRNA. By the end of the experiment, bacteria without the long form tracrRNA had completely died off, suggesting that long form tracrRNA normally protects cells from the sickness and death that happen when CRISPR-Cas9 activity is very high.

“We started to get the idea that the long form was repressing but not eliminating its own CRISPR-related activity,” says Workman.

To see if the long form tracrRNA could be re-programmed to repress other bacterial genes, the research team altered the long form tracrRNA’s spacer region to let it sit on a gene that produces green fluorescence. Bacteria with this mutated version of long form tracrRNA glowed less green than bacteria containing the normal long form tracrRNA, suggesting that the long form tracrRNA can be genetically engineered to dial down other bacterial genes.

Another research team, from Emory University, found that in the parasitic bacteria Francisella novicida, Cas9 behaves as a dimmer switch for a gene outside the CRISPR-Cas9 region. The CRISPR-Cas9 system in the Johns Hopkins study is more widely used by scientists as a gene-cutting tool, and the Johns Hopkins team’s findings provide evidence that the dimmer action controls the CRISPR-Cas9 system in addition to other genes.

The researchers also found the genetic components of long form tracrRNA in about 40% of the Streptococcus group of bacteria. Further study of bacterial strains that don’t have the long form tracrRNA, says Workman, will potentially reveal whether their CRISPR-Cas9 systems are intact, and other ways that bacteria may dial back the CRISPR-Cas9 system.

The dimmer capability that the experiments uncovered, says Modell, offers opportunities to design new or better CRISPR-Cas9 tools aimed at regulating gene activity for research purposes. “In a gene editing scenario, a researcher may want to cut a specific gene, in addition to using the long form tracrRNA to inhibit gene activity,” he says.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

A natural single-guide RNA repurposes Cas9 to autoregulate CRISPR-Cas expression by Rachael E. Workman, Teja Pammi, Binh T.K. Nguyen, Leonardo W. Graeff, Erika Smith, Suzanne M. Sebald, Marie J. Stoltzfus, Chad W. Euler, Joshua W. Modell. Cell DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2020.12.017 Published Online:J anuary 08, 2021

This paper is behind a paywall.

CRISPR/Cas9 used successfully to edit SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus, which is similar to HIV) out of monkey genome

Before reading further please note, the research discussed in this posting is based on animal testing, which many people find highly disturbing.

CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)/Cas9 (CRISPR-associated protein 9), or more familiarly CRISPR/Cas9, has been been used to edit simian immunodeficiency virus from infected monkeys’ cells according to a December 2, 2020 article by Matthew Rozsa for Salon.com (Note: Links have been removed),

With multiple coronavirus vaccines being produced as we speak, the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have an end in sight, though the HIV pandemic continues after more than 40 years. That might seem like a head-scratcher: why is HIV, a virus we’ve known about for decades, so much harder to cure than a virus discovered just last year? Part of the reason is that HIV, as a retrovirus, is a more complex virus to vaccinate against than SARS-CoV-2 — hence why a vaccine or other cure has eluded scientists for decades. 

Now, a surprising new study on a related retrovirus shows incredible promise for the potential to develop a cure for HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus. In an article published in the scientific journal Nature Communications, scientists revealed that they had used CRISPR – a genetic technology that can alter DNA and whose developers won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry [specifically, Jennifer Doudna and Emanuelle Charpentier received the Nobel for developing CRISPR-cas9 or CRISPR/Cas9 not CRISPR alone) — to successfully edit SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus), a virus similar to HIV, out of the genomes of non-human primates.  Specifically, the scientists were able to edit out the SIV genome from rhesus macaque monkeys’ infected cells.

For anyone who’s interested in how CRISPR was developed and the many contributions which have led to the current state-of-the-art for CRISPR gene editing, see the History subsection of Wikipedia’s CRISPR entry.

Getting back to Rozsa’s December 2, 2020 article,

“This study used the CRISPR CaS9 system, which has been described as molecular scissors,” Andrew G. MacLean, PhD, wrote to Salon. MacLean is an associate professor at the Tulane National Primate Research Center and the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Tulane University School of Medicine and was a senior co-investigator of the study. “It uses a highly specific targeting system to cut out a specific portion of DNA that is necessary for HIV to be able to produce more virus.”

He added, “Our collaborators at in the Khalili Lab at Temple University have developed a method of ‘packaging’ this within a single so-called vector. A vector is a non-disease causing virus that is used as a carrier for the CRISPR CaS9 scissors to get it into the tissues of interest.”

The experiments with SIV are considered to be a gateway to understanding HIV, as HIV is believed to have evolved from SIV, and is genetically similar.

“The rhesus macaque model of HIV/AIDS is the most valuable model to test efficacy of new interventions or approaches for preventing or treating HIV infection, prior to human clinical trials,” Binhua Ling, PhD, associate professor at the Southwest National Primate Research Center, Texas Biomedical Research Institute, wrote to Salon. “This first proof-of-principal [emphasis mine] study on the rhesus macaque model indicates that this virus-vehicle-delivered-CRISPR system can reach many tissue sites of the body, and is able to effectively delete virus DNA in infected cells. This paves the way for applying the same technology to the human body, which could lead to a cure for HIV infection.”

Tricia H. Burdo, PhD, another senior co-investigator on the new study who works at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University, explained to Salon by email that “HIV is in a class of viruses (retroviruses) that inserts itself into the DNA of the host, so you can really think of this now as a genetic disease” — in other words, the kind of thing that would be ripe for CRISPR’s scissors-like ability to remove errant or unwanted genetic material. Burdo notes that the CRISPR technology discussed in the article “cuts out this foreign viral gene.”

The study was conducted on eight Rhesus macaque monkeys. That is a very small number to start with and not all of the monkeys received the CRISPR/Cas9 treatment. From the ‘Animals used in the study and ethical statement‘ subsection of the study, “Animals were sacrificed for tissue collection 3 weeks after … .” Leaving aside how anyone may feel about ‘sacrificing …’, three weeks is not a long time for observation.

Should you be interested, there is a November 30, 2020 Tulane University news release announcing the research.

If you want to read the whole study, here’s a link and a citation,

CRISPR based editing of SIV proviral DNA in ART treated non-human primates by Pietro Mancuso, Chen Chen, Rafal Kaminski, Jennifer Gordon, Shuren Liao, Jake A. Robinson, Mandy D. Smith, Hong Liu, Ilker K. Sariyer, Rahsan Sariyer, Tiffany A. Peterson, Martina Donadoni, Jaclyn B. Williams, Summer Siddiqui, Bruce A. Bunnell, Binhua Ling, Andrew G. MacLean, Tricia H. Burdo & Kamel Khalili. Nature Communications volume 11, Article number: 6065 (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-19821-7 Published: 27 November 2020

This paper is open access.

As Rozsa notes in his December 2, 2020 article, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS estimates that 32.7 million [24.8 million–42.2 million] people have died from AIDS-related illnesses since the start (1981?) of the epidemic to the end of 2019.

“transforming a plant is still an art” even with CRISPR

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change, the more things stay the same), is an old French expression that came to mind when I stumbled across two stories about genetic manipulation of food-producing plants.

The first story involves CRISPR (clustered regularly interspersed short palindromic repeats) gene editing and the second involves more ancient ways to manipulate plant genetics.

Getting ‘CRISPR’d’ plant cells to grow into plants

Plants often don’t grow from cells after researchers alter their genomes. Using a new technology, a team coaxed wheat (above) and other crops to more readily produce genome-edited healthy adult plants. Credit: Juan Debernardi

An October 13, 2020 news item on phys.org announces research about getting better results after a plant’s genome has been altered,

Researchers know how to make precise genetic changes within the genomes of crops, but the transformed cells often refuse to grow into plants. One team has devised a new solution.

Scientists who want to improve crops face a dilemma: it can be difficult to grow plants from cells after you’ve tweaked their genomes.

A new tool helps ease this process by coaxing the transformed cells, including those modified with the gene-editing system CRISPR-Cas9, to regenerate new plants. Howard Hughes Medical Institute Research Specialist Juan M. Debernardi and Investigator Jorge Dubcovsky, together with David Tricoli at the University of California, Davis [UC Davis] Plant Transformation Facility, Javier Palatnik from Argentina, and colleagues at the John Innes Center [UK], collaborated on the work. The team reports the technology, developed in wheat and tested in other crops, October 12, 2020, in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

An October 12, 2020 Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) news release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

“The problem is that transforming a plant is still an art [emphasis mine],” Dubcovsky says. The success rate is often low – depending on the crop being modified, 100 attempts may yield only a handful of green shoots that can turn into full-grown plants. The rest fail to produce new plants and die. Now, however, “we have reduced this barrier,” says Dubcovsky, a plant geneticist at UC Davis. Using two genes that already control development in many plants, his team dramatically increased the formation of shoots in modified wheat, rice, citrus, and other crops.

Although UC Davis has a pending patent for commercial applications, Dubcovsky says the technique is available to any researcher who wants to use it for research, at no charge. A number of plant breeding companies have also expressed interested in licensing it. “Now people are trying it in multiple crops,” he says.

Humans have worked to improve plants since the dawn of agriculture, selecting wild grasses to produce cultivated maize and wheat, for example. Nowadays, though, CRISPR has given researchers the ability to make changes to the genome with surgical precision. They have used it to create wheat plants with larger grains, generate resistance to fungal infection, design novel tomato plant architectures, and engineer other traits in new plant varieties.

But the process isn’t easy. Scientists start out with plant cells or pieces of tissue, into which they introduce the CRISPR machinery and a small guide to the specific genes they’d like to edit. They must then entice the modified cells into forming a young plant. Most don’t sprout – a problem scientists are still working to understand.

They have tried to find work-arounds, including boosting the expression of certain genes that control early stages of plant development. While this approach has had some success, it can lead to twisted, stunted, sterile plants if not managed properly.Dubcovsky and his colleagues looked at two other growth-promoting genes, GRF and GIF, that work together in young tissues or organs of plants ranging from moss to fruit trees. The team put these genes side-by-side, like a couple holding hands, before adding them to plant cells. “If you go to a dance, you need to find your partner,” Dubcovsky says. “Here, you are tied with a rope to your partner.”

Dubcovsky’s team found that genetically altered wheat, rice, hybrid orange, and other crops produced many more shoots if those experiments included the linked GRF and GIF genes. In experiments with one variety of wheat, the appearance of shoots increased nearly eight-fold. The number of shoots in rice and the hybrid orange, meanwhile, more than doubled and quadrupled, respectively. What’s more, these shoots grew into healthy plants capable of reproducing on their own, with none of the defects that can result when scientists boost other development-controlling genes. That’s because one of the genes is naturally degraded in adult tissues, Dubcovsky says.

Caroline Roper, a plant pathologist at University of California, Riverside who was not involved in the work, plans to use the new technology to study citrus greening, a bacterial disease that kills trees and renders oranges hard and bitter.

To understand how citrus trees can protect themselves, she needs to see how removing certain genes alters their susceptibility to the bacterium — information that could lead to ways to fight the disease. With conventional techniques, it could take at least two years to generate the gene-edited plants she needs. She hopes Dubcovsky’s tool will shorten that timeline.  

“Time is of the essence. The growers, they wanted an answer yesterday, because they’re at the brink of having to abandon cultivating citrus,” she says.

For anyone who noticed the reference to citrus greening in the last paragraphs of this news release, I have more information aboutthe disease and efforts to it in an August 6, 2020 posting.

As for the latest in gene editing and regeneration, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

A GRF–GIF chimeric protein improves the regeneration efficiency of transgenic plants by Juan M. Debernardi, David M. Tricoli, Maria F. Ercoli, Sadiye Hayta, Pamela Ronald, Javier F. Palatnik & Jorge Dubcovsky. Nature Biotechnology volume 38, pages 1274–1279(2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41587-020-0703-0 First Published Online: 12 October 2020 Journal Issue Date: November 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Ancient farming techniques for engineering crops

I stumbled on this story by Gabriela Serrato Marks for Massive Science almost three years late (it’s a Dec. 5, 2017 article),

There are more than 50 strains of maize, called landraces, grown in Mexico. A landrace is similar to a dog breed: Corgis and Huskies are both dogs, but they were bred to have different traits. Maize domestication worked the same way.

Some landraces of maize can grow in really dry conditions; others grow best in wetter soils. Early maize farmers selectively bred maize landraces that were well-adapted to the conditions on their land, a practice that still continues today in rural areas of Mexico.

If you think this sounds like an early version of genetic engineering, you’d be correct. But nowadays, modern agriculture is moving away from locally adapted strains and traditional farming techniques and toward active gene manipulation. The goal of both traditional landrace development and modern genetic modification has been to create productive, valuable crops, so these two techniques are not necessarily at odds.

But as more farmers converge on similar strains of (potentially genetically modified) seeds instead of developing locally adapted landraces, there are two potential risks: one is losing the cultural legacy of traditional agricultural techniques that have been passed on in families for centuries or even millennia, and another is decreasing crop resilience even as climate variability is increasing.

Mexico is the main importer of US-grown corn, but that imported corn is primarily used to feed livestock. The corn that people eat or use to make tortillas is grown almost entirely in Mexico, which is where landraces come in.

It is a common practice to grow multiple landraces with different traits as an insurance policy against poor growth conditions. The wide range of landraces contains a huge amount of genetic diversity, making it less likely that one adverse event, such as a drought or pest infestation, will wipe out an entire crop. If farmers only grow one type of corn, the whole crop is vulnerable to the same event.

Landraces are also different from most commercially available hybrid strains of corn because they are open pollinating, which means that farmers can save seeds and replant them the next year, saving money and preserving the strain. If a landrace is not grown anymore, its contribution to maize’s genetic diversity is permanently lost.

This diversity was cultivated over generations from maize’s wild cousin, teosinte, by 60 groups of indigenous people in Mexico. Teosinte looks like a skinny, hairier version of maize. It still grows wild in some parts of Central America, but its close relatives have been found, domesticated, at archaeological sites in the region over 9,000 years old. These early maize cobs could easily fit in the palm of your hand – not big enough to be a staple crop that early farmers could depend upon for sustenance. Genetically, they were more similar to wild teosinte than to modern maize.

[] archaeologists also found that the cobs in Honduras, which is outside the natural range of teosinte, were larger than cobs of the same age from the original domestication region in southern Mexico. The scientists think that people in Honduras were able to develop more productive maize landraces because their crops were isolated from wild teosinte.

The size and shape of the ancient cobs from Honduras show that early farmers engineered the maize crop [emphasis mine] to make it more productive. They developed unique landraces that were well adapted to local conditions and successfully cultivated enough maize to support their communities. In many ways, they were early geneticists. [emphasis mine] …

We have a lot to learn from the indigenous farmers who were growing maize 4,000 years ago. Their history provides examples of both environmentally sound genetic modification and effective adaptation to climate variability. [emphases mine] …

Plus ça change …, eh?

CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)-Cas9 in the forest

It seems lignin is a bit of a problem. Its presence in a tree makes processing the wood into various products more difficult. (Of course, some people appreciate trees for other reasons both practical [carbon sequestration?] and/or aesthetic.)

In any event, scientists have been working on ways to reduce the amount of lignin in poplar trees since at least 2014 (see my April 7, 2014 posting titled ‘Good lignin, bad lignin: Florida researchers use plant waste to create lignin nanotubes while researchers in British Columbia develop trees with less lignin’; scroll down about 40% of the way for the ‘less lignin’ story).

(I don’t believe the 2014 research was accomplished with the CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)-Cas9 technique as it had only been developed in 2012.)

The latest in the quest to reduce the amount of lignin of poplar trees comes from a Belgian/US team, from an Oct. 6, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily,

Researchers led by prof. Wout Boerjan (VIB-UGent [Ghent University] Center for Plant Systems Biology) have discovered a way to stably finetune the amount of lignin in poplar by applying CRISPR/Cas9 technology. Lignin is one of the main structural substances in plants and it makes processing wood into, for example, paper difficult. This study is an important breakthrough in the development of wood resources for the production of paper with a lower carbon footprint, biofuels, and other bio-based materials. Their work, in collaboration with VIVES University College (Roeselare, Belgium) and University of Wisconsin (USA) appears in Nature Communications.

Picture Tailoring lignin and growth by creating CCR2 allelic variants (From left to right: wild type, CCR2(-/-), CCR2(-/*) line 206, CCR2(-/*) line 12) Courtesy: VIB (Flanders Institute of Biotechnology)

An Oct. 6, 2020 VIB (Vlaams Instituut voor Biotechnologie; Flanders Institute of Biotechnology) press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, explains the reason for this research and how CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) technology could help realize it,

Towards a bio-based economy

Today’s fossil-based economy results in a net increase of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere and is a major cause of global climate change. To counter this, a shift towards a circular and bio-based economy is essential. Woody biomass can play a crucial role in such a bio-based economy by serving as a renewable and carbon-neutral resource for the production of many chemicals. Unfortunately, the presence of lignin hinders the processing of wood into bio-based products.

Prof. Wout Boerjan (VIB-UGent): “A few years ago, we performed a field trial with poplars that were engineered to make wood containing less lignin. Most plants showed large improvements in processing efficiency for many possible applications. The downside, however, was that the reduction in lignin accomplished with the technology we used then – RNA interference – was unstable and the trees grew less tall.”

New tools

Undeterred, the researchers went looking for a solution. They employed the recent CRISPR/Cas9 technology in poplar to lower the lignin amount in a stable way, without causing a biomass yield penalty. In other words, the trees grew just as well and as tall as those without genetic changes.

Dr. Barbara De Meester (VIB-UGent): “Poplar is a diploid species, meaning every gene is present in two copies. Using CRISPR/Cas9, we introduced specific changes in both copies of a gene that is crucial for the biosynthesis of lignin. We inactivated one copy of the gene, and only partially inactivated the other. The resulting poplar line had a stable 10% reduction in lignin amount while it grew normally in the greenhouse. Wood from the engineered trees had an up to 41% increase in processing efficiency”.

Dr. Ruben Vanholme (VIB-UGent): “The mutations that we have introduced through CRISPR/Cas9 are similar to those that spontaneously arise in nature. The advantage of the CRISPR/Cas9 method is that the beneficial mutations can be directly introduced into the DNA of highly productive tree varieties in only a fraction of the time it would take by a classical breeding strategy.”

The applications of this method are not only restricted to lignin but might also be useful to engineer other traits in crops, providing a versatile new breeding tool to improve agricultural productivity.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Tailoring poplar lignin without yield penalty by combining a null and haploinsufficient CINNAMOYL-CoA REDUCTASE2 allele by Barbara De Meester, Barbara Madariaga Calderón, Lisanne de Vries, Jacob Pollier, Geert Goeminne, Jan Van Doorsselaere, Mingjie Chen, John Ralph, Ruben Vanholme & Wout Boerjan. Nature Communications volume 11, Article number: 5020 (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-18822-w Published 06 October 2020

This paper is open access.

Congratulations to winners of 2020 Nobel Prize for Chemistry: Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier & Dr. Jennifer A. Doudna (CRISPR-cas9)

It’s possible there’s a more dramatic development in the field of contemporary gene-editing but it’s indisputable that CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) -cas9 (CRISPR-associated 9 [protein]) ranks very highly indeed.

The technique, first discovered (or developed) in 2012, has brought recognition in the form of the 2020 Nobel Prize for Chemistry to CRISPR’s two discoverers, Emanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna.

An October 7, 2020 news item on phys.org announces the news,

The Nobel Prize in chemistry went to two researchers Wednesday [October 7, 2020] for a gene-editing tool that has revolutionized science by providing a way to alter DNA, the code of life—technology already being used to try to cure a host of diseases and raise better crops and livestock.

Emmanuelle Charpentier of France and Jennifer A. Doudna of the United States won for developing CRISPR-cas9, a very simple technique for cutting a gene at a specific spot, allowing scientists to operate on flaws that are the root cause of many diseases.

“There is enormous power in this genetic tool,” said Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.

More than 100 clinical trials are underway to study using CRISPR to treat diseases, and “many are very promising,” according to Victor Dzau, president of the [US] National Academy of Medicine.

“My greatest hope is that it’s used for good, to uncover new mysteries in biology and to benefit humankind,” said Doudna, who is affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley, and is paid by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which also supports The Associated Press’ Health and Science Department.

The prize-winning work has opened the door to some thorny ethical issues: When editing is done after birth, the alterations are confined to that person. Scientists fear CRISPR will be misused to make “designer babies” by altering eggs, embryos or sperm—changes that can be passed on to future generations.

Unusually for phys.org, this October 7, 2020 news item is not a simple press/news release reproduced in its entirety but a good overview of the researchers’ accomplishments and a discussion of some of the issues associated with CRISPR along with the press release at the end.

I have covered some CRISPR issues here including intellectual property (see my March 15, 2017 posting titled, “CRISPR patent decision: Harvard’s and MIT’s Broad Institute victorious—for now‘) and designer babies (as exemplified by the situation with Dr. He Jiankui; see my July 28, 2020 post titled, “July 2020 update on Dr. He Jiankui (the CRISPR twins) situation” for more details about it).

An October 7, 2020 article by Michael Grothaus for Fast Company provides a business perspective (Note: A link has been removed),

Needless to say, research by the two scientists awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry today has the potential to change the course of humanity. And with that potential comes lots of VC money and companies vying for patents on techniques and therapies derived from Charpentier’s and Doudna’s research.

One such company is Doudna’s Editas Medicine [according to my search, the only company associated with Doudna is Mammoth Biosciences, which she co-founded], while others include Caribou Biosciences, Intellia Therapeutics, and Casebia Therapeutics. Given the world-changing applications—and the amount of revenue such CRISPR therapies could bring in—it’s no wonder that such rivalry is often heated (and in some cases has led to lawsuits over the technology and its patents).

As Doudna explained in her book, A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution, cowritten by Samuel H. Sternberg …, “… —but we could also have woolly mammoths, winged lizards, and unicorns.” And as for that last part, she made clear, “No, I am not kidding.”

Everybody makes mistakes and the reference to Editas Medicine is the only error I spotted. You can find out more about Mammoth Biosciences here and while Dr. Doudna’s comment, “My greatest hope is that it’s used for good, to uncover new mysteries in biology and to benefit humankind,” is laudable it would seem she wishes to profit from the discovery. Mammoth Biosciences is a for-profit company as can be seen at the end of the Mammoth Biosciences’ October 7, 2020 congratulatory news release,

About Mammoth Biosciences

Mammoth Biosciences is harnessing the diversity of nature to power the next-generation of CRISPR products. Through the discovery and development of novel CRISPR systems, the company is enabling the full potential of its platform to read and write the code of life. By leveraging its internal research and development and exclusive licensing to patents related to Cas12, Cas13, Cas14 and Casɸ, Mammoth Biosciences can provide enhanced diagnostics and genome editing for life science research, healthcare, agriculture, biodefense and more. Based in San Francisco, Mammoth Biosciences is co-founded by CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna and Trevor Martin, Janice Chen, and Lucas Harrington. The firm is backed by top institutional investors [emphasis mine] including Decheng, Mayfield, NFX, and 8VC, and leading individual investors including Brook Byers, Tim Cook, and Jeff Huber.

An October 7, 2029 Nobel Prize press release, which unleashed all this interest in Doudna and Charpentier, notes this,

Prize amount: 10 million Swedish kronor, to be shared equally between the Laureates.

In Canadian money that amount is $1,492,115.03 (as of Oct. 9, 2020 12:40 PDT when I checked a currency converter).

Ordinarily there’d be a mildly caustic comment from me about business opportunities and medical research but this is a time for congratulations to both Dr. Emanuelle Charpentier and Dr. Jennifer Doudna.

Off-target CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing changes closer to home than originally believed according to three studies

Heidi Ledford’s June 25, 2020 article (Note: Links have been removed) for Nature focuses on three studies (not yet peer-reviewed) that viewed together suggest CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) gene-editing is less like using a pair of scissors to cut out unwanted mutations and more like using a catalyst (a chemical agent which increases chemical reactions) and getting unanticipated and unwatned reactions. Except, it’s an unpredictable catalyst.

A suite of experiments that use the gene-editing tool CRISPR–Cas9 to modify human embryos have revealed how the process can make large, unwanted changes to the genome at or near the target site. [emphasis mine]

The studies were published this month on the preprint server bioRxiv, and have not yet been peer-reviewed1,2,3. But taken together, they give scientists a good look at what some say is an underappreciated risk of CRISPR–Cas9 editing. Previous experiments have revealed that the tool can make ‘off target’ gene mutations far from the target site, but the nearby changes identified in the latest studies can be missed by standard assessment methods.

These safety concerns are likely to inform the ongoing debate over whether scientists should edit human embryos to prevent genetic diseases — a process that is controversial because it creates a permanent change to the genome that can be passed down for generations. “If human embryo editing for reproductive purposes or germline editing were space flight, the new data are the equivalent of having the rocket explode at the launch pad before take-off,” says Fyodor Urnov, who studies genome editing at the University of California, Berkeley, but was not involved in any of the latest research.

These studies,if borne out, offer new concerns (from Ledford’s June 25, 2020 article),

The changes are the result of DNA-repair processes harnessed by genome-editing tools. CRISPR–Cas9 uses a small strand of RNA to direct the Cas9 enzyme to a site in the genome with a similar sequence. The enzyme then cuts both strands of DNA at that site, and the cell’s repair systems heal the gap.

The edits occur during that repair: most often, the cell seals up the cut using an error-prone mechanism that can insert or delete a small number of DNA letters. If researchers provide a DNA template, the cell might sometimes use that sequence to mend the cut, resulting in a true rewrite. But broken DNA can also cause shuffling or loss of a large region of the chromosome.

Previous work using CRISPR in mouse embryos and other kinds of human cell had already demonstrated that editing chromosomes can cause large, unwanted effects4,5. But it was important to demonstrate the work in human embryos as well, says Urnov, because different cell types might respond to genome editing differently.

Such rearrangements could be missed in many experiments, which typically look for other unwanted edits, such as single DNA-letter changes or small insertions or deletions of only a few letters. The latest studies, however, looked specifically for large deletions and chromosomal rearrangements near the target site. [emphasis mine] “This is something that all of us in the scientific community will, starting immediately, take more seriously than we already have,” says Urnov. “This is not a one-time fluke.”

Ledford’s article offers some description and analysis of each of the three papers.Note: All of the research was done with nonviable embryos. For anyone who wants to read the papers for themselves here are links and citations for each of the three,

Frequent loss-of-heterozygosity in CRISPR-Cas9-edited early human embryos by Gregorio Alanis-Lobato, Jasmin Zohren, Afshan McCarthy, Norah M.E. Fogarty, Nada Kubikova, Emily Hardman, Maria Greco, Dagan Wells, James M.A. Turner, Kathy K. Niakan. bioRxiv DOI: https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.06.05.135913 Posted: June 5, 2020

Reading frame restoration at the EYS locus, and allele-specific chromosome removal after Cas9 cleavage in human embryos by Michael V. Zuccaro, Jia Xu, Carl Mitchell, Diego Marin, Raymond Zimmerman, Bhavini Rana, Everett Weinstein, Rebeca T. King, Morgan Smith, Stephen H. Tsang, Robin Goland, Maria Jasin, Rogerio Lobo, Nathan Treff, Dieter Egli. bioRxiv DOI: https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.06.17.149237 Posted June 18, 2020

FREQUENT GENE CONVERSION IN HUMAN EMBRYOS INDUCED BY DOUBLE STRAND BREAKS by Dan Liang, Nuria Marti Gutierrez, Tailai Chen, Yeonmi Lee, Sang-Wook Park, Hong Ma, Amy Koski, Riffat Ahmed, Hayley Darby, Ying Li, Crystal Van Dyken, Aleksei Mikhalchenko, Thanasup Gonmanee, Tomonari Hayama, Han Zhao, Keliang Wu, Jingye Zhang, Zhenzhen Hou, Jumi Park, Chong-Jai Kim, Jianhui Gong, Yilin Yuan, Ying Gu, Yue Shen, Susan B. Olson, Hui Yang, David Battaglia, Thomas O’Leary, Sacha A. Krieg, David M. Lee, Diana H. Wu, P. Barton Duell, Sanjiv Kaul, Jin-Soo Kim, Stephen B. Heitner, Eunju Kang, Zi-Jiang Chen, Paula Amato, Shoukhrat Mitalipov. bioRxiv DOI: https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.06.19.162214 Posted June 20, 2020

These papers are open access.

A July 17, 2018 posting is probably the first time I featured work showing that CRISPR gene-editing can result in off-target effects; it was followed up by a September 20, 2019 posting on the topic.

July 2020 update on Dr. He Jiankui (the CRISPR twins) situation

This was going to be written for January 2020 but sometimes things happen (e.g., a two-part overview of science culture in Canada from 2010-19 morphed into five parts with an addendum and, then, a pandemic). By now (July 28, 2020), Dr. He’s sentencing to three years in jail announced by the Chinese government in January 2020 is old news.

Regardless, it seems a neat and tidy ending to an international scientific scandal concerned with germline-editing which resulted in at least one set of twins, Lulu and Nana. He claimed to have introduced a variant (“Delta 32” variation) of their CCR5 gene. This does occur naturally and scientists have noted that people with this mutation seem to be resistant to HIV and smallpox.

For those not familiar with the events surrounding the announcement, here’s a brief recap. News of the world’s first gene-edited twins’ birth was announced in November 2018 just days before an international meeting group of experts who had agreed on a moratorium in 2015 on exactly that kind of work. The scientist making the announcement about the twins was scheduled for at least one presentation at the meeting, which was to be held in Hong Kong. He did give his presentation but left the meeting shortly afterwards as shock was beginning to abate and fierce criticism was rising. My November 28, 2018 posting (First CRISPR gene-edited babies? Ethics and the science story) offers a timeline of sorts and my initial response.

I subsequently followed up with two mores posts as the story continued to develop. My May 17, 2019 posting (Genes, intelligence, Chinese CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) babies, and other children) featured news that Dr. He’s gene-editing may have resulted in the twins having improved cognitive skills. Then, more news broke. The title for my June 20, 2019 posting (Greater mortality for the CRISPR twins Lulu and Nana?) is self-explanatory.

I have roughly organized my sources for this posting into two narratives, which I’m contrasting with each other. First, there is one found in the mainstream media (English language), ‘The Popular Narrative’. Second, there is story where Dr. He is viewed more sympathetically and as part of a larger community where there isn’t nearly as much consensus over what should or shouldn’t be done as ‘the popular narrative’ insists.

The popular narrative: Dr. He was a rogue scientist

A December 30, 2019 article for Fast Company by Kristin Toussaint lays out the latest facts (Note: A link has been removed),

… Now, a court in China has sentenced He to three years in prison, according to Xinhua, China’s state-run press agency, for “illegal medical practices.”

The court in China’s southern city of Shenzhen says that He’s team, which included colleagues Zhang Renli and Qin Jinzhou from two medical institutes in Guangdong Province, falsified ethical approval documents and violated China’s “regulations and ethical principles” with their gene-editing work. Zhang was sentenced to two years in jail, and Qin to 18 months with a two-year reprieve, according to Xinhau.

Ian Sample’s December 31, 2020 article for the Guardian offers more detail (Note: Links have been removed),

The court in Shenzhen found He guilty of “illegal medical practices” and in addition to the prison sentence fined him 3m yuan (£327,360), according to the state news agency, Xinhua. Two others on He’s research team received lesser fines and sentences.

“The three accused did not have the proper certification to practise medicine, and in seeking fame and wealth, deliberately violated national regulations in scientific research and medical treatment,” the court said, according to Xinhua. “They’ve crossed the bottom line of ethics in scientific research and medical ethics.”

[…] the court found He had forged documents from an ethics review panel that were used to recruit couples for the research. The couples that enrolled had a man with HIV and a woman without and were offered IVF in return for taking part.

Zhang Renli, who worked with He, was sentenced to two years in prison and fined 1m yuan. Colleague Qin Jinzhou received an 18-month sentence, but with a two-year reprieve, and a 500,000 yuan fine.

He’s experiments, which were carried out on seven embryos in late 2018, sent shockwaves through the medical and scientific world. The work was swiftly condemned for deceiving vulnerable patients and using a risky, untested procedure with no medical justification. Earlier this month, MIT Technology Review released excerpts from an early manuscript of He’s work. It casts serious doubts on his claims to have made the children immune to HIV.

Even as the scientific community turned against He, the scientist defended his work and said he was proud of having created Lulu and Nana. A third child has since been born as a result of the experiments.

Robin Lovell-Badge at the Francis Crick Institute in London said it was “far too premature” for anyone to pursue genome editing on embryos that are intended to lead to pregnancies. “At this stage we do not know if the methods will ever be sufficiently safe and efficient, although the relevant science is progressing rapidly, and new methods can look promising. It is also important to have standards established, including detailed regulatory pathways, and appropriate means of governance.”

A December 30, 2019 article, by Carolyn Y. Johnson for the Washington Post, covers much the same ground although it does go on to suggest that there might be some blame to spread around (Note: Links have been removed),

The Chinese researcher who stunned and alarmed the international scientific community with the announcement that he had created the world’s first gene-edited babies has been sentenced to three years in prison by a court in China.

He Jiankui sparked a bioethical crisis last year when he claimed to have edited the DNA of human embryos, resulting in the birth of twins called Lulu and Nana as well as a possible third pregnancy. The gene editing, which was aimed at making the children immune to HIV, was excoriated by many scientists as a reckless experiment on human subjects that violated basic ethical principles.

The judicial proceedings were not public, and outside experts said it is hard to know what to make of the punishment without the release of the full investigative report or extensive knowledge of Chinese law and the conditions under which He will be incarcerated.

Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist at the University of California at Berkeley who co-invented CRISPR, the gene editing technology that He utilized, has been outspoken in condemning the experiments and has repeatedly said CRISPR is not ready to be used for reproductive purposes.

R. Alta Charo, a fellow at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, was among a small group of experts who had dinner with He the night before he unveiled his controversial research in Hong Kong in November 2018.

“He Jiankui is an example of somebody who fundamentally didn’t understand, or didn’t want to recognize, what have become international norms around responsible research,” Charo said. “My impression is he allowed his personal ambition to completely cloud rational thinking and judgment.”

Scientists have been testing an array of powerful biotechnology tools to fix genetic diseases in adults. There is tremendous excitement about the possibility of fixing genes that cause serious disease, and the first U.S. patients were treated with CRISPR this year.

But scientists have long drawn a clear moral line between curing genetic diseases in adults and editing and implanting human embryos, which raises the specter of “designer babies.” Those changes and any unanticipated ones could be inherited by future generations — in essence altering the human species.

“The fact that the individual at the center of the story has been punished for his role in it should not distract us from examining what supporting roles were played by others, particularly in the international scientific community and also the environment that shaped and encouraged him to push the limits,” said Benjamin Hurlbut [emphasis mine], associate professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University.

Stanford University cleared its scientists, including He’s former postdoctoral adviser, Stephen Quake, finding that Quake and others did not participate in the research and had expressed “serious concerns to Dr. He about his work.” A Rice University spokesman said an investigation continues into bioengineering professor Michael Deem, He’s former academic adviser. Deem was listed as a co-author on a paper called “Birth of Twins After Genome Editing for HIV Resistance,” submitted to scientific journals, according to MIT Technology Review.

It’s interesting that it’s only the Chinese scientists who are seen to be punished, symbolically at least. Meanwhile, Stanford clears its scientists of any wrongdoing and Rice University continues to investigate.

Watch for the Hurlbut name (son, Benjamin and father, William) to come up again in the ‘complex narrative’ section.

Criticism of the ‘twins’ CRISPR editing’ research

Antonio Regalado’s December 3, 2020 article for the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Technology Review features comments from various experts on an unpublished draft of Dr. He Jiankui’s research

Earlier this year a source sent us a copy of an unpublished manuscript describing the creation of the first gene-edited babies, born last year in China. Today, we are making excerpts of that manuscript public for the first time.

Titled “Birth of Twins After Genome Editing for HIV Resistance,” and 4,699 words long, the still unpublished paper was authored by He Jiankui, the Chinese biophysicist who created the edited twin girls. A second manuscript we also received discusses laboratory research on human and animal embryos.

The metadata in the files we were sent indicate that the two draft papers were edited by He in late November 2018 and appear to be what he initially submitted for publication. Other versions, including a combined manuscript, may also exist. After consideration by at least two prestigious journals, Nature and JAMA, his research remains unpublished.

The text of the twins paper is replete with expansive claims of a medical breakthrough that can “control the HIV epidemic.” It claims “success”—a word used more than once—in using a “novel therapy” to render the girls resistant to HIV. Yet surprisingly, it makes little attempt to prove that the twins really are resistant to the virus. And the text largely ignores data elsewhere in the paper suggesting that the editing went wrong.

We shared the unpublished manuscripts with four experts—a legal scholar, an IVF doctor, an embryologist, and a gene-editing specialist—and asked them for their reactions. Their views were damning. Among them: key claims that He and his team made are not supported by the data; the babies’ parents may have been under pressure to agree to join the experiment; the supposed medical benefits are dubious at best; and the researchers moved forward with creating living human beings before they fully understood the effects of the edits they had made.

1. Why aren’t the doctors among the paper’s authors?

The manuscript begins with a list of the authors—10 of them, mostly from He Jiankui’s lab at the Southern University of Science and Technology, but also including Hua Bai, director of an AIDS support network, who helped recruit couples, and Michael Deem, an American biophysicist whose role is under review by Rice University. (His attorney previously said Deem never agreed to submit the manuscript and sought to remove his name from it.)

It’s a small number of people for such a significant project, and one reason is that some names are missing—notably, the fertility doctors who treated the patients and the obstetrician who delivered the babies. Concealing them may be an attempt to obscure the identities of the patients. However, it also leaves unclear whether or not these doctors understood they were helping to create the first gene-edited babies.

To some, the question of whether the manuscript is trustworthy arises immediately.

Hank Greely, professor of law, Stanford University: We have no, or almost no, independent evidence for anything reported in this paper. Although I believe that the babies probably were DNA-edited and were born, there’s very little evidence for that. Given the circumstances of this case, I am not willing to grant He Jiankui the usual presumption of honesty. 

That last article by Regalado is the purest example I have of how fierce the criticism is and how almost all of it is focused on Dr. He and his Chinese colleagues.

A complex, measured narrative: multiple players in the game

The most sympathetic and, in many ways, the most comprehensive article is an August 1, 2019 piece by Jon Cohen for Science magazine (Note: Links have been removed),

On 10 June 2017, a sunny and hot Saturday in Shenzhen, China, two couples came to the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) to discuss whether they would participate in a medical experiment that no researcher had ever dared to conduct. The Chinese couples, who were having fertility problems, gathered around a conference table to meet with He Jiankui, a SUSTech biophysicist. Then 33, He (pronounced “HEH”) had a growing reputation in China as a scientist-entrepreneur but was little known outside the country. “We want to tell you some serious things that might be scary,” said He, who was trim from years of playing soccer and wore a gray collared shirt, his cuffs casually unbuttoned.

He simply meant the standard in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures. But as the discussion progressed, He and his postdoc walked the couples through informed consent forms [emphasis mine] that described what many ethicists and scientists view as a far more frightening proposition. Seventeen months later, the experiment triggered an international controversy, and the worldwide scientific community rejected him. The scandal cost him his university position and the leadership of a biotech company he founded. Commentaries labeled He, who also goes by the nickname JK, a “rogue,” “China’s Frankenstein,” and “stupendously immoral.” [emphases mine]

But that day in the conference room, He’s reputation remained untarnished. As the couples listened and flipped through the forms, occasionally asking questions, two witnesses—one American, the other Chinese—observed [emphasis mine]. Another lab member shot video, which Science has seen [emphasis mine], of part of the 50-minute meeting. He had recruited those couples because the husbands were living with HIV infections kept under control by antiviral drugs. The IVF procedure would use a reliable process called sperm washing to remove the virus before insemination, so father-to-child transmission was not a concern. Rather, He sought couples who had endured HIV-related stigma and discrimination and wanted to spare their children that fate by dramatically reducing their risk of ever becoming infected. [emphasis mine]

He, who for much of his brief career had specialized in sequencing DNA, offered a potential solution: CRISPR, the genome-editing tool that was revolutionizing biology, could alter a gene in IVF embryos to cripple production of an immune cell surface protein, CCR5, that HIV uses to establish an infection. “This technique may be able to produce an IVF baby naturally immunized against AIDS,” one consent form read.[emphasis mine]

The couples’ children could also pass the protective mutation to future generations. The prospect of this irrevocable genetic change is why, since the advent of CRISPR as a genome editor 5 years earlier, the editing of human embryos, eggs, or sperm has been hotly debated. The core issue is whether such germline editing would cross an ethical red line because it could ultimately alter our species. Regulations, some with squishy language, arguably prohibited it in many countries, China included.

Yet opposition was not unanimous. A few months before He met the couples, a committee convened by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) concluded in a well-publicized report that human trials of germline editing “might be permitted” if strict criteria were met. The group of scientists, lawyers, bioethicists, and patient advocates spelled out a regulatory framework but cautioned that “these criteria are necessarily vague” because various societies, caregivers, and patients would view them differently. The committee notably did not call for an international ban, arguing instead for governmental regulation as each country deemed appropriate and “voluntary self-regulation pursuant to professional guidelines.”

[…] He hid his plans and deceived his colleagues and superiors, as many people have asserted? A preliminary investigation in China stated that He had forged documents, “dodged supervision,” and misrepresented blood tests—even though no proof of those charges was released [emphasis mine], no outsiders were part of the inquiry, and He has not publicly admitted to any wrongdoing. (CRISPR scientists in China say the He fallout has affected their research.) Many scientists outside China also portrayed He as a rogue actor. “I think there has been a failure of self-regulation by the scientific community because of a lack of transparency,” virologist David Baltimore, a Nobel Prize–winning researcher at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena and co-chair of the Hong Kong summit, thundered at He after the biophysicist’s only public talk on the experiment.

Because the Chinese government has revealed little and He is not talking, key questions about his actions are hard to answer. Many of his colleagues and confidants also ignored Science‘s requests for interviews. But Ryan Ferrell, a public relations specialist He hired, has cataloged five dozen people who were not part of the study but knew or suspected what He was doing before it became public. Ferrell calls it He’s circle of trust. [emphasis mine]

That circle included leading scientists—among them a Nobel laureate—in China and the United States, business executives, an entrepreneur connected to venture capitalists, authors of the NASEM report, a controversial U.S. IVF specialist [John Zhang] who discussed opening a gene-editing clinic with He [emphasis mine], and at least one Chinese politician. “He had an awful lot of company to be called a ‘rogue,’” says geneticist George Church [emphases mine], a CRISPR pioneer at Harvard University who was not in the circle of trust and is one of the few scientists to defend at least some aspects of He’s experiment.

Some people sharply criticized He when he brought them into the circle; others appear to have welcomed his plans or did nothing. Several went out of their way to distance themselves from He after the furor erupted. For example, the two onlookers in that informed consent meeting were Michael Deem, He’s Ph.D. adviser at Rice University in Houston, Texas, and Yu Jun, a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and co-founder of the Beijing Genomics Institute, the famed DNA sequencing company in Shenzhen. Deem remains under investigation by Rice for his role in the experiment and would not speak with Science. In a carefully worded statement, Deem’s lawyers later said he “did not meet the parents of the reported CCR5-edited children, or anyone else whose embryos were edited.” But earlier, Deem cooperated with the Associated Press (AP) for its exclusive story revealing the birth of the babies, which reported that Deem was “present in China when potential participants gave their consent and that he ‘absolutely’ thinks they were able to understand the risks. [emphasis mine]”

Yu, who works at CAS’s Beijing Institute of Genomics, acknowledges attending the informed consent meeting with Deem, but he told Science he did not know that He planned to implant gene-edited embryos. “Deem and I were chatting about something else,” says Yu, who has sequenced the genomes of humans, rice, silkworms, and date palms. “What was happening in the room was not my business, and that’s my personality: If it’s not my business, I pay very little attention.”

Some people who know He and have spoken to Science contend it is time for a more open discussion of how the biophysicist formed his circle of confidants and how the larger circle of trust—the one between the scientific community and the public—broke down. Bioethicist William Hurlbut at Stanford University [emphasis mine] in Palo Alto, California, who knew He wanted to conduct the embryo-editing experiment and tried to dissuade him, says that He was “thrown under the bus” by many people who once supported him. “Everyone ran for the exits, in both the U.S. and China. I think everybody would do better if they would just openly admit what they knew and what they did, and then collectively say, ‘Well, people weren’t clear what to do. We should all admit this is an unfamiliar terrain.’”

Steve Lombardi, a former CEO of Helicos, reacted far more charitably. Lombardi, who runs a consulting business in Bridgewater, Connecticut, says Quake introduced him to He to help find investors for Direct Genomics. “He’s your classic, incredibly bright, naïve entrepreneur—I run into them all the time,” Lombardi says. “He had the right instincts for what to do in China and just didn’t know how to do it. So I put him in front of as many people as I could.” Lombardi says He told him about his embryo-editing ambitions in August 2017, asking whether Lombardi could find investors for a new company that focused on “genetic medical tourism” and was based in China or, because of a potentially friendlier regulatory climate, Thailand. “I kept saying to him, ‘You know, you’ve got to deal with the ethics of this and be really sure that you know what you’re doing.’”

In April 2018, He asked Ferrell to handle his media full time. Ferrell was a good fit—he had an undergraduate degree in neuroscience, had spent a year in Beijing studying Chinese, and had helped another company using a pre-CRISPR genome editor. Now that a woman in the trial was pregnant, Ferrell says, He’s “understanding of the gravity of what he had done increased.” Ferrell had misgivings about the experiment, but he quit HDMZ and that August moved to Shenzhen. With the pregnancy already underway, Ferrell reasoned, “It was going to be the biggest science story of that week or longer, no matter what I did.”

MIT Technology Review had broken a story early that morning China time, saying human embryos were being edited and implanted, after reporter Antonio Regalado discovered descriptions of the project that He had posted online, without Ferrell’s knowledge, in an official Chinese clinical trial registry. Now, He gave AP the green light to post a detailed account, which revealed that twin girls—whom He, to protect their identifies, named Lulu and Nana—had been born. Ferrell and He also posted five unfinished YouTube videos explaining and justifying the unprecedented experiment.

“He was fearful that he’d be unable to communicate to the press and the onslaught in a way that would be in any way manageable for him,” Ferrell says. One video tried to forestall eugenics accusations, with He rejecting goals such as enhancing intelligence, changing skin color, and increasing sports performance as “not love.” Still, the group knew it had lost control of the news. [emphasis mine]

… On 7 March 2017, 5 weeks after the California gathering, He submitted a medical ethics approval application to the Shenzhen HarMoniCare Women and Children’s Hospital that outlined the planned CCR5 edit of human embryos. The babies, it claimed, would be resistant to HIV as well as to smallpox and cholera. (The natural CCR5 mutation may have been selected for because it helps carriers survive smallpox and plague, some studies suggest—but they don’t mention cholera.) “This is going to be a great science and medicine achievement ever since the IVF technology which was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2010, and will also bring hope to numerous genetic disease patients,” the application says. Seven people on the ethics committee, chaired by Lin Zhitong—a one-time Direct Genomics director and a HarMoniCare administrator—signed the application, indicating they approved it.

[…] John Zhang, […] [emphasis mine] earned his medical degree in China and a Ph.D. in reproductive biology at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Zhang had made international headlines himself in September 2016, when New Scientist revealed that he had created the world’s first “three-parent baby” by using mitochondrial DNA from a donor egg to revitalize the egg of a woman with infertility and then inseminating the resulting egg. “This technology holds great hope for ladies with advanced maternal age to have their own children with their own eggs,” Zhang explains in the center’s promotional video, which alternates between Chinese and English. It does not mention that Zhang did the IVF experiment in Mexico because it is not now allowed in the United States. [emphasis mine]

When Science contacted Zhang, the physician initially said he barely knew He: [emphases mine] “I know him just like many people know him, in an academic meeting.”

After his talk [November 2018 at Hong Kong meeting], He immediately drove back to Shenzhen, and his circle of trust began to disintegrate. He has not spoken publicly since. “I don’t think he can recover himself through PR,” says Ferrell, who no longer works for He but recently started to do part-time work for He’s wife. “He has to do other service to the world.”

Calls for a moratorium on human germline editing have increased, although at the end of the Hong Kong summit, the organizing committee declined in its consensus to call for a ban. China has stiffened its regulations on work with human embryos, and Chinese bioethicists in a Nature editorial about the incident urged the country to confront “the eugenic thinking that has persisted among a small proportion of Chinese scholars.”

Church, who has many CRISPR collaborations in China, finds it inconceivable that He’s work surprised the Chinese government. China has “the best surveillance system in the world,” he says. “I conclude that they were totally aware of what he was doing at every step of the way, especially because he wasn’t particularly secretive about it.”

Benjamin Hurlbut, William’s son and a historian of biomedicine at Arizona State University in Tempe, says leaders in the scientific community should take a hard look at their actions, too. [emphases mine] He thinks the 2017 NASEM report helped give rise to He by following a well-established approach to guiding science: appointing an elite group to decide how scientists should be regulated. Benjamin Hurlbut, whose book Experiments in Democracy explores the governance of embryo research and bioethics, questions why small, scientist-led groups—à la the totemic Asilomar conference held in 1975 to discuss the future of recombinant DNA research—are seen as the best way to shape thinking about new technologies. Hurlbut has called for a “global observatory for gene editing” to convene meetings with diverse perspectives.

The prevailing notion that the scientific community simply “failed to see the rogue among the responsible,” Hurlbut says, is a convenient narrative for those scientific leaders and inhibits their ability to learn from such failures. [emphases mine] “It puts them on the right side of history,” he says. They failed to paint a bright enough red line, Hurlbut contends. “They are not on the right side of history because they contributed to this.”

If you have the time, I strongly recommend reading Cohen’s piece in its entirety. You’ll find links to the reports and more articles with in-depth reporting on this topic.

A little kindness and no regrets

William Hurlbut was interviewed in an As it happens (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’ CBC) radio programme segment on December 30, 2020. This is an excerpt from the story transcript written by Sheena Goodyear (Note: A link has been removed),

Dr. William Hurlbut, a physician and professor of neural-biology at Stanford University, says he tried to warn He to slow down before it was too late. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.

What was your reaction to the news that Dr. He had been sentenced to three years in prison?

My first reaction was one of sadness because I know Dr. He — who we call J.K., that’s his nickname.

I spent quite a few hours talking with him, and I’m just sad that this worked out this way. It didn’t work out well for him or for his country or for the world, in some sense.

Except the one good thing is it’s alerted us, it’s awakened the world, to the seriousness of the issues that are coming down toward us with biotechnology, especially in genetics.

How does he feel about [how] not just the Chinese government, but the world generally, responded to his experiment?

He was surprised, personally. But I had actually warned him that he was proceeding too fast, and I didn’t know he had implanted embryos.

We had several conversations before this was disclosed, and I warned him to go more slowly and to keep in conversation with the rest of the international scientific community, and more broadly the international perspectives on social and ethical matters.

He was doing that to some extent, but not deeply enough and not transparently enough.

It sounds like you were very thoughtful in the conversations you had with him and the advice you gave him. And I guess you operated with what you had. But do you have any regrets yourself?

I don’t have any regrets about the way I conducted myself. I regret that this happened this way for J.K., who is a very bright person, and a very nice person, a humble person.

He grew up in a poor urban farming village. He told me that at one point he wanted to ask out a certain girl that he thought was really pretty … but he was embarrassed to do so because her family owned the restaurant. And so you see how humble his origins were.

By the way, he did end up asking her out and he ended up marrying her, which is a happy story, except now they’re separated for years of crucial time, and they have little children. 

I know this is a bigger story than just J.K. and his family. But there’s a personal story to it too.

What happens He Jiankui? … Is his research career over?

It’s hard to imagine that a nation like China would not give him some some useful role in their society. A very intelligent and very well-educated young man. 

But on the other hand, he will be forever a sign of a very crucial and difficult moment for the human species. He’s not going outlive that.

It’s going to be interesting. I hope I get a chance to have good conversations with him again and hear his internal ruminations and perspectives on it all.

This (“I don’t have any regrets about the way I conducted myself”) is where Hurlbut lost me. I think he could have suggested that he’d reviewed and rethought everything and feels that he and others could have done better and maybe they need to rethink how scientists are trained and how we talk about science, genetics, and emerging technology. Interestingly, it’s his son who comes up with something closer to what I’m suggesting (this excerpt was quoted earlier in this posting from a December 30, 2019 article, by Carolyn Y. Johnson for the Washington Post),

“The fact that the individual at the center of the story has been punished for his role in it should not distract us from examining what supporting roles were played by others, particularly in the international scientific community and also the environment that shaped and encouraged him to push the limits,” said Benjamin Hurlbut [emphasis mine], associate professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University.

The man who CRISPRs himself approves

Josiah Zayner publicly injected himself with CRISPR in a demonstration (see my January 25, 2018 posting for details about Zayner, his demonstration, and his plans). As you might expect, his take on the He affair is quite individual. From a January 2, 2020 article for STAT, Zayner presents the case for Dr. He’s work (Note: Links have been removed),

When I saw the news that He Jiankui and colleagues had been sentenced to three years in prison for the first human embryo gene editing and implantation experiments, all I could think was, “How will we look back at what they had done in 100 years?”

When the scientist described his research and revealed the births of gene edited twin girls at the [Second] International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong in late November 2018, I stayed up into the early hours of the morning in Oakland, Calif., watching it. Afterward, I couldn’t sleep for a few days and couldn’t stop thinking about his achievement.

This was the first time a viable human embryo was edited and allowed to live past 14 days, much less the first time such an embryo was implanted and the baby brought to term.

The majority of scientists were outraged at the ethics of what had taken place, despite having very little information on what had actually occurred.

To me, no matter how abhorrent one views [sic] the research, it represents a substantial step forward in human embryo editing. Now there is a clear path forward that anyone can follow when before it had been only a dream.

As long as the children He Jiankui engineered haven’t been harmed by the experiment, he is just a scientist who forged some documents to convince medical doctors to implant gene-edited embryos. The 4-minute mile of human genetic engineering has been broken. It will happen again.

The academic establishment and federal funding regulations have made it easy to control the number of heretical scientists. We rarely if ever hear of individuals pushing the ethical and legal boundaries of science.

The rise of the biohacker is changing that.

A biohacker is a scientist who exists outside academia or an institution. By this definition, He Jiankui is a biohacker. I’m also part of this community, and helped build an organization to support it.

Such individuals have much more freedom than “traditional” scientists because scientific regulation in the U.S. is very much institutionally enforced by the universities, research organizations, or grant-giving agencies. But if you are your own institution and don’t require federal grants, who can police you? If you don’t tell anyone what you are doing, there is no way to stop you — especially since there is no government agency actively trying to stop people from editing embryos.

… When a human embryo being edited and implanted is no longer interesting enough for a news story, will we still view He Jiankui as a villain?

I don’t think we will. But even if we do, He Jiankui will be remembered and talked about more than any scientist of our day. Although that may seriously aggravate many scientists and bioethicists, I think he deserves that honor.

Josiah Zayner is CEO of The ODIN, a company that teaches people how to do genetic engineering in their homes.

You can find The ODIN here.

Final comments

There can’t be any question that this was inevitable. One needs only to take a brief stroll through the history of science to know that scientists are going to push boundaries or, as in this case, press past an ill-defined grey zone.

The only scientists who are being publicly punished for hubris are Dr. He Jiankui and his two colleagues in China. Dr. Michael Deem is still working for Rice University as far as I can determine. Here’s how the Wikipedia entry for the He Jiankui Affair describes the investigation (Note: Links have been removed),

Michael W. Deem, an American bioengineering professor at Rice University and He’s doctoral advisor, was involved in the research, and was present when people involved in He’s study gave consent.[24] He was the only non-Chinese out of 10 authors listed in the manuscript submitted to Nature.[30] Deem came under investigation by Rice University after news of the work was made public.[58] As of 31 December 2019, the university had not released a decision.[59] [emphasis mine]

Meanwhile the scientists at Stanford are cleared. While there are comments about the Chinese government not being transparent, it seems to me that US universities are just as opaque.

What seems missing from all this discussion and opprobrium is that the CRISPR technology itself is problematic. My September 20, 2019 post features research into off-target results from CRISPR gene-editing and, prior, there was this July 17, 2018 posting (The CRISPR [clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats]-CAS9 gene-editing technique may cause new genetic damage kerfuffle).

I’d like to see more discussion and, in line with Benjamin Hurlbut’s thinking, I’d like to see more than a small group of experts talking to each other as part of the process especially here in Canada and in light of efforts to remove our ban on germline-editing (see my April 26, 2019 posting for more about those efforts).

New US regulations exempt many gene-edited crops from government oversight

A June 1, 2020 essay by Maywa Montenegro (Postdoctoral Fellow, University of California at Davis) for The Conversation posits that new regulations (which in fact result in deregulation) are likely to create problems,

In May [2020], federal regulators finalized a new biotechnology policy that will bring sweeping changes to the U.S. food system. Dubbed “SECURE,” the rule revises U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations over genetically engineered plants, automatically exempting many gene-edited crops from government oversight. Companies and labs will be allowed to “self-determine” whether or not a crop should undergo regulatory review or environmental risk assessment.

Initial responses to this new policy have followed familiar fault lines in the food community. Seed industry trade groups and biotech firms hailed the rule as “important to support continuing innovation.” Environmental and small farmer NGOs called the USDA’s decision “shameful” and less attentive to public well-being than to agribusiness’s bottom line.

But the gene-editing tool CRISPR was supposed to break the impasse in old GM wars by making biotechnology more widely affordable, accessible and thus democratic.

In my research, I study how biotechnology affects transitions to sustainable food systems. It’s clear that since 2012 the swelling R&D pipeline of gene-edited grains, fruits and vegetables, fish and livestock has forced U.S. agencies to respond to the so-called CRISPR revolution.

Yet this rule change has a number of people in the food and scientific communities concerned. To me, it reflects the lack of accountability and trust between the public and government agencies setting policies.

Is there a better way?

… I have developed a set of principles and practices for governing CRISPR based on dialogue with front-line communities who are most affected by the technologies others usher in. Communities don’t just have to adopt or refuse technology – they can co-create [emphasis mine] it.

One way to move forward in the U.S. is to take advantage of common ground between sustainable agriculture movements and CRISPR scientists. The struggle over USDA rules suggests that few outside of industry believe self-regulation is fair, wise or scientific.

h/t: June 1, 2020 news item on phys.org

If you have the time and the inclination, do read the essay in its entirety.

Anyone who has read my COVID-19 op-ed for the Canadian Science Policy may see some similarity between Montenegro’s “co-create” and this from my May 15, 2020 posting which included my reference materials or this version on the Canadian Science Policy Centre where you can find many other COVID-19 op-eds)

In addition to engaging experts as we navigate our way into the future, we can look to artists, writers, citizen scientists, elders, indigenous communities, rural and urban communities, politicians, philosophers, ethicists, religious leaders, and bureaucrats of all stripes for more insight into the potential for collateral and unintended consequences.

To be clear, I think times of crises are when a lot of people call for more co-creation and input. Here’s more about Montenegro’s work on her profile page (which includes her academic credentials, research interests and publications) on the University of California at Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management webspace. She seems to have been making the call for years.

I am a US-Dutch-Peruvian citizen who grew up in Appalachia, studied molecular biology in the Northeast, worked as a journalist in New York City, and then migrated to the left coast to pursue a PhD. My indigenous ancestry, smallholder family history, and the colonizing/decolonizing experiences of both the Netherlands and Peru informs my personal and professional interests in seeds and agrobiodiversity. My background engenders a strong desire to explore synergies between western science and the indigenous/traditional knowledge systems that have historically been devalued and marginalized.

Trained in molecular biology, science writing, and now, a range of critical social and ecological theory, I incorporate these perspectives into research on seeds.

I am particularly interested in the relationship between formal seed systems – characterized by professional breeding, certification, intellectual property – and commercial sale and informal seed systems through which farmers traditionally save, exchange, and sell seeds. …

You can find more on her Twitter feed, which is where I discovered a call for papers for a “Special Feature: Gene Editing the Food System” in the journal, Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene. They have a rolling deadline, which started in February 2020. At this time, there is one paper in the series,

Democratizing CRISPR? Stories, practices, and politics of science and governance on the agricultural gene editing frontier by Maywa Montenegro de Wit. Elem Sci Anth, 8(1), p.9. DOI: http://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.405 Published February 25, 2020

The paper is open access. Interestingly, the guest editor is Elizabeth Fitting of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada.

The Broad Institute gives us another reason to love CRISPR

More and more, this resembles a public relations campaign. First, CRISPR (clustered regularly interspersed short palindromic repeats) gene editing is going to be helpful with COVID-19 and now it can help us to deal with conservation issues. (See my May 26, 2020 posting about the latest CRISPR doings as of May 7, 2020; included is a brief description of the patent dispute between Broad Institute and UC Berkeley and musings about a public relations campaign.)

A May 21, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily announces how CRISPR could be useful for conservation,

The gene-editing technology CRISPR has been used for a variety of agricultural and public health purposes — from growing disease-resistant crops to, more recently, a diagnostic test for the virus that causes COVID-19. Now a study involving fish that look nearly identical to the endangered Delta smelt finds that CRISPR can be a conservation and resource management tool, as well. The researchers think its ability to rapidly detect and differentiate among species could revolutionize environmental monitoring.

Caption: Longfin smelt can be difficult to differentiate from endangered Delta smelt. Here, a longfin smelt is swabbed for genetic identification through a CRISPR tool called SHERLOCK. Credit: Alisha Goodbla/UC Davis

A May 21, 2020 University of California at Davis (UC Davis) news release (also on EurekAlert) by Kat Kerlin, which originated the news item, provides more detail (Note: A link has been removed),

The study, published in the journal Molecular Ecology Resources, was led by scientists at the University of California, Davis, and the California Department of Water Resources in collaboration with MIT Broad Institute [emphasis mine].

As a proof of concept, it found that the CRISPR-based detection platform SHERLOCK (Specific High-sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter Unlocking) [emphasis mine] was able to genetically distinguish threatened fish species from similar-looking nonnative species in nearly real time, with no need to extract DNA.

“CRISPR can do a lot more than edit genomes,” said co-author Andrea Schreier, an adjunct assistant professor in the UC Davis animal science department. “It can be used for some really cool ecological applications, and we’re just now exploring that.”

WHEN GETTING IT WRONG IS A BIG DEAL

The scientists focused on three fish species of management concern in the San Francisco Estuary: the U.S. threatened and California endangered Delta smelt, the California threatened longfin smelt and the nonnative wakasagi. These three species are notoriously difficult to visually identify, particularly in their younger stages.

Hundreds of thousands of Delta smelt once lived in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta before the population crashed in the 1980s. Only a few thousand are estimated to remain in the wild.

“When you’re trying to identify an endangered species, getting it wrong is a big deal,” said lead author Melinda Baerwald, a project scientist at UC Davis at the time the study was conceived and currently an environmental program manager with California Department of Water Resources.

For example, state and federal water pumping projects have to reduce water exports if enough endangered species, like Delta smelt or winter-run chinook salmon, get sucked into the pumps. Rapid identification makes real-time decision making about water operations feasible.

FROM HOURS TO MINUTES

Typically to accurately identify the species, researchers rub a swab over the fish to collect a mucus sample or take a fin clip for a tissue sample. Then they drive or ship it to a lab for a genetic identification test and await the results. Not counting travel time, that can take, at best, about four hours.

SHERLOCK shortens this process from hours to minutes. Researchers can identify the species within about 20 minutes, at remote locations, noninvasively, with no specialized lab equipment. Instead, they use either a handheld fluorescence reader or a flow strip that works much like a pregnancy test — a band on the strip shows if the target species is present.

“Anyone working anywhere could use this tool to quickly come up with a species identification,” Schreier said.

OTHER CRYPTIC CRITTERS

While the three fish species were the only animals tested for this study, the researchers expect the method could be used for other species, though more research is needed to confirm. If so, this sort of onsite, real-time capability may be useful for confirming species at crime scenes, in the animal trade at border crossings, for monitoring poaching, and for other animal and human health applications.

“There are a lot of cryptic species we can’t accurately identify with our naked eye,” Baerwald said. “Our partners at MIT are really interested in pathogen detection for humans. We’re interested in pathogen detection for animals as well as using the tool for other conservation issues.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Rapid and accurate species identification for ecological studies and monitoring using CRISPR‐based SHERLOCK by Melinda R. Baerwald, Alisha M. Goodbla, Raman P. Nagarajan, Jonathan S. Gootenberg, Omar O. Abudayyeh, Feng Zhang, Andrea D. Schreier. Molecular Ecology Resources https://doi.org/10.1111/1755-0998.13186 First published: 12 May 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

The business of CRISPR

SHERLOCK™, is a trademark for what Sherlock Biosciences calls one of its engineering biology platforms. From the Sherlock Biosciences Technology webpage,

What is SHERLOCK™?

SHERLOCK is an evolution of CRISPR technology, which others use to make precise edits in genetic code. SHERLOCK can detect the unique genetic fingerprints of virtually any DNA or RNA sequence in any organism or pathogen. Developed by our founders and licensed exclusively from the Broad Institute, SHERLOCK is a method for single molecule detection of nucleic acid targets and stands for Specific High Sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter unLOCKing. It works by amplifying genetic sequences and programming a CRISPR molecule to detect the presence of a specific genetic signature in a sample, which can also be quantified. When it finds those signatures, the CRISPR enzyme is activated and releases a robust signal. This signal can be adapted to work on a simple paper strip test, in laboratory equipment, or to provide an electrochemical readout that can be read with a mobile phone.

However, things get a little more confusing when you look at the Broad Institute’s Developing Diagnostics and Treatments webpage,

Ensuring the SHERLOCK diagnostic platform is easily accessible, especially in the developing world, where the need for inexpensive, reliable, field-based diagnostics is the most urgent

SHERLOCK (Specific High-sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter unLOCKing) is a CRISPR-based diagnostic tool that is rapid, inexpensive, and highly sensitive, with the potential to have a transformative effect on research and global public health. The SHERLOCK platform can detect viruses, bacteria, or other targets in clinical samples such as urine or blood, and reveal results on a paper strip — without the need for extensive specialized equipment. This technology could potentially be used to aid the response to infectious disease outbreaks, monitor antibiotic resistance, detect cancer, and more. SHERLOCK tools are freely available [emphasis mine] for academic research worldwide, and the Broad Institute’s licensing framework [emphasis mine] ensures that the SHERLOCK diagnostic platform is easily accessible in the developing world, where inexpensive, reliable, field-based diagnostics are urgently needed.

Here’s what I suspect. as stated, the Broad Institute has free SHERLOCK licenses for academic institutions and not-for-profit organizations but Sherlock Biosciences, a Broad Institute spinoff company, is for-profit and has trademarked SHERLOCK for commercial purposes.

Final thoughts

This looks like a relatively subtle campaign to influence public perceptions. Genetic modification or genetic engineering as exemplified by the CRISPR gene editing technique is a force for the good of all. It will help us in our hour of need (COVID-19 pandemic) and it can help us save various species and better manage our resources.

This contrasts greatly with the publicity generated by the CRISPR twins situation where a scientist claimed to have successfully edited the germline for twins, Lulu and Nana. This was done despite a voluntary, worldwide moratorium on germline editing of viable embryos. (Search the terms [either here or on a standard search engine] ‘CRISPR twins’, ‘Lulu and Nana’, and/or ‘He Jiankui’ for details about the scandal.

In addition to presenting CRISPR as beneficial in the short term rather than the distant future, this publicity also subtly positions the Broad Institute as CRISPR’s owner.

Or, maybe I’m wrong. Regardless, I’m watching.

US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gives first authorization for CRISPR (clustered regularly interspersed short palindromic repeats) use in COVID-19 crisis

Clustered regularly interspersed short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) gene editing has been largely confined to laboratory use or tested in agricultural trials. I believe that is true worldwide excepting the CRISPR twin scandal. (There are numerous postings about the CRISPR twins here including a Nov. 28, 2018 post, a May 17, 2019 post, and a June 20, 2019 post. Update: It was reported (3rd. para.) in December 2019 that He had been sentenced to three years jail time.)

Connie Lin in a May 7, 2020 article for Fast Company reports on this surprising decision by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Note: A link has been removed),

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has granted Emergency Use Authorization to a COVID-19 test that uses controversial gene-editing technology CRISPR.

This marks the first time CRISPR has been authorized by the FDA, although only for the purpose of detecting the coronavirus, and not for its far more contentious applications. The new test kit, developed by Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Sherlock Biosciences, will be deployed in laboratories certified to carry out high-complexity procedures and is “rapid,” returning results in about an hour as opposed to those that rely on the standard polymerase chain reaction method, which typically requires six hours.

The announcement was made in the FDA’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: May 7, 2020 Daily Roundup (4th item in the bulleted list), Or, you can read the May 6, 2020 letter (PDF) sent to John Vozella of Sherlock Biosciences by the FDA.

As well, there’s the May 7, 2020 Sherlock BioSciences news release (the most informative of the lot),

Sherlock Biosciences, an Engineering Biology company dedicated to making diagnostic testing better, faster and more affordable, today announced the company has received Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for its Sherlock™ CRISPR SARS-CoV-2 kit for the detection of the virus that causes COVID-19, providing results in approximately one hour.

“While it has only been a little over a year since the launch of Sherlock Biosciences, today we have made history with the very first FDA-authorized use of CRISPR technology, which will be used to rapidly identify the virus that causes COVID-19,” said Rahul Dhanda, co-founder, president and CEO of Sherlock Biosciences. “We are committed to providing this initial wave of testing kits to physicians, laboratory experts and researchers worldwide to enable them to assist frontline workers leading the charge against this pandemic.”

The Sherlock™ CRISPR SARS-CoV-2 test kit is designed for use in laboratories certified under the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments of 1988 (CLIA), 42 U.S.C. §263a, to perform high complexity tests. Based on the SHERLOCK method, which stands for Specific High-sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter unLOCKing, the kit works by programming a CRISPR molecule to detect the presence of a specific genetic signature – in this case, the genetic signature for SARS-CoV-2 – in a nasal swab, nasopharyngeal swab, oropharyngeal swab or bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) specimen. When the signature is found, the CRISPR enzyme is activated and releases a detectable signal. In addition to SHERLOCK, the company is also developing its INSPECTR™ platform to create an instrument-free, handheld test – similar to that of an at-home pregnancy test – that utilizes Sherlock Biosciences’ Synthetic Biology platform to provide rapid detection of a genetic match of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

“When our lab collaborated with Dr. Feng Zhang’s team to develop SHERLOCK, we believed that this CRISPR-based diagnostic method would have a significant impact on global health,” said James J. Collins, co-founder and board member of Sherlock Biosciences and Termeer Professor of Medical Engineering and Science for MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES) and Department of Biological Engineering. “During what is a major healthcare crisis across the globe, we are heartened that the first FDA-authorized use of CRISPR will aid in the fight against this global COVID-19 pandemic.”

Access to rapid diagnostics is critical for combating this pandemic and is a primary focus for Sherlock Biosciences co-founder and board member, David R. Walt, Ph.D., who co-leads the Mass [Massachusetts] General Brigham Center for COVID Innovation.

“SHERLOCK enables rapid identification of a single alteration in a DNA or RNA sequence in a single molecule,” said Dr. Walt. “That precision, coupled with its capability to be deployed to multiplex over 100 targets or as a simple point-of-care system, will make it a critical addition to the arsenal of rapid diagnostics already being used to detect COVID-19.”

This development is particularly interesting since there was a major intellectual property dispute over CRISPR between the Broad Institute (a Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT] joint initiative), and the University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley). The Broad Institute mostly won in the first round of the patent fight, as I noted in a March 15, 2017 post but, as far as I’m aware, UC Berkeley is still disputing that decision.

In the period before receiving authorization, it appears that Sherlock Biosciences was doing a little public relations and ‘consciousness raising’ work. Here’s a sample from a May 5, 2020 article by Sharon Begley for STAT (Note: Links have been removed),

The revolutionary genetic technique better known for its potential to cure thousands of inherited diseases could also solve the challenge of Covid-19 diagnostic testing, scientists announced on Tuesday. A team headed by biologist Feng Zhang of the McGovern Institute at MIT and the Broad Institute has repurposed the genome-editing tool CRISPR into a test able to quickly detect as few as 100 coronavirus particles in a swab or saliva sample.

Crucially, the technique, dubbed a “one pot” protocol, works in a single test tube and does not require the many specialty chemicals, or reagents, whose shortage has hampered the rollout of widespread Covid-19 testing in the U.S. It takes about an hour to get results, requires minimal handling, and in preliminary studies has been highly accurate, Zhang told STAT. He and his colleagues, led by the McGovern’s Jonathan Gootenberg and Omar Abudayyeh, released the protocol on their STOPCovid.science website.

Because the test has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, it is only for research purposes for now. But minutes before speaking to STAT on Monday, Zhang and his colleagues were on a conference call with FDA officials about what they needed to do to receive an “emergency use authorization” that would allow clinical use of the test. The FDA has used EUAs to fast-track Covid-19 diagnostics as well as experimental therapies, including remdesivir, after less extensive testing than usually required.

For an EUA, the agency will require the scientists to validate the test, which they call STOPCovid, on dozens to hundreds of samples. Although “it is still early in the process,” Zhang said, he and his colleagues are confident enough in its accuracy that they are conferring with potential commercial partners who could turn the test into a cartridge-like device, similar to a pregnancy test, enabling Covid-19 testing at doctor offices and other point-of-care sites.

“It could potentially even be used at home or at workplaces,” Zhang said. “It’s inexpensive, does not require a lab, and can return results within an hour using a paper strip, not unlike a pregnancy test. This helps address the urgent need for widespread, accurate, inexpensive, and accessible Covid-19 testing.” Public health experts say the availability of such a test is one of the keys to safely reopening society, which will require widespread testing, and then tracing and possibly isolating the contacts of those who test positive.

If you have time, do read Begley’s in full.