By Upasana Bhattacharjee
First observed in a yoghurt laboratory in Denmark, the discovery of viral genome sequences inside bacteria CRISPR spiralled research across the globe. CRISPR-Cas9 was initially identified by researchers from the University of California. CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat which refers to repeated genome (an organism’s complete set of DNA) sequences in microorganisms. Bacteria defend themselves from viral attacks by incorporating strips of the viral genome into their own DNA. The protein that makes this possible for them is Cas9.
The patent wars
2012 saw CRISPR, a bacterial shield, being used as a gene-editing tool, the findings of which were published by the University of California (UC). Similar research was underway at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard where bioengineers were looking into the usage of CRISPR-Cas9 in eukaryotic cells—cells with a confined nucleus and other parts held within a membrane. If this was to be used as a gene-editing tool in humans, understanding its potential in eukaryotic cells was essential, as humans too are eukaryotes.
UC filed a patent for the technology in May 2012 and Broad did the same in December. Broad’s application was more targeted—they wanted to use the technology specifically for eukaryotic cells. Broad requested an expedited review and got their patent in 2014. Following this development, UC filed for patent interference to investigate possible overlaps with their application.
The judgement on this case was rendered on February 15, 2017. Promising to be one of the most momentous judgements in the field of genetics, the verdict held the patent belonging to the Broad Institute as true. UC wasn’t quite the loser though, because a closed case meant the issuing of a patent. Furthermore, UC holds the license over using the technology in all kinds of cells as opposed to Broad which retains it over only one kind; thus, commercial users will require a license from both parties.
Implications for humanity
As a gene-editing tool, Cas9 can use RNA as a guide to look for a DNA match in cells and then slice the DNA in its enzymes. Scientists can thus cut and paste parts of DNA sequences (up to 20 bases long) into the genome at any point. Along with being cheaper, it is a more accurate model than the ones from the past, thus heralding massive opportunities for the future.
For instance, the technology can be used to edit allergens in peanuts; breed mosquitos that cannot transmit malaria; and edit the DNA of pigs to transplant their organs to humans. Scientists are looking into using the technology to treat Sickle cell anaemia, eye conditions and Huntington’s disease. It is already being used in China to inject cancer-fighting white blood cells into patients. While there are concerns about potentially chronic and irreversible side-effects, experts hope to solve them through research over the next few years. Meanwhile, CRISPR will be used to study diseases in a targeted and efficient manner.
With incredible advancements in medicine, this technology of genetic engineering also places immense power in the hands of humanity.
It equips us with the technology to edit and transform human beings and therefore humanity itself. As such, decisions that determine what gets to exist and what is ‘edited out’ have to be taken with caution because it gives proponents of eugenics the power to play god. In a world battling crises over diverse nationalities, religions and cultures, this technology makes us realise the urgent need for tolerance and ethical respectability towards one another.