19th October 2020

Fascinating or frightening? CRISPR wins the Nobel Prize for Chemistry

Two women bring home the Nobel Prize for Chemistry with the remarkable gene-editing tool CRISPR – yet this technology raises some of the most difficult ethical questions we face
Fascinating or frightening? CRISPR wins the Nobel Prize for Chemistry
Photo: LJNovaScotia @ Pixabay

The Nobel Prize for Chemistry this year has made history in several ways.

Not only is this the first time two women have shared the prize, but this also marks the first win for CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors, something which has been highly anticipated by many scientists over the past few years.

Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna were awarded the prize on the 7th October this year for this piece of groundbreaking and transformative gene technology, awarding them 10 million krona. This has huge implications for the fields of medicine and agriculture, among others.

CRISPR is an acronym for ‘Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats’: a gene-editing tool that can alter the structure of DNA.

Whilst gene editing has been available for many years, the discovery of CRISPR/Cas9 has revolutionised the process. It is cheaper and easier to use than previous methods, and highly effective.

CRISPR is a natural immune system complex found in bacteria, which helps them to defend against viruses. It is comprised of a Cas9 enzyme and a piece of RNA.

This short sequence acts as a guide; it is complementary to a desired section of DNA, allowing for the CRISPR/Cas9 complex to target it for editing. This protein can then cut the DNA and essentially destroy the gene’s function.

Depending on the desired outcome, the gene can then be repaired at the cut sites, or a new segment of DNA could be inserted.

Some of the remarkable achievements of CRISPR include: the detection and treatment of cancer, including testing CRISPR edited immune cells in lung cancer patients; and the successful removal of HIV from human immune cells.

There have also been many applications in agriculture such as: making crops resistant to mould, pests, and droughts; and the creation of seedless fruit, which could lead to more sustainable food production.

There will no doubt be much more research into CRISPR and its uses. But the endless possibilities it creates poses an important question: where do we draw the line?

Gene-editing technology has been used in controversial ways in the past, for example by He Jiankui.

When he presented his work in November 2018, he was later found guilty of conducting ‘illegal medical practices’ and sentenced to 3 years in prison. This came after using gene editing with CRISPR on embryos and implanting them into two women, in an attempt to introduce a resistance gene to HIV. This was met with fierce criticism, as it put the babies at risk with little evidence of being beneficial.

The potential use of CRISPR in embryos raises a lot of ethical questions and social concerns. In the wrong hands, this tool could be used to create ‘designer babies’. As of September, a panel of leading US and UK scientific societies concluded that this technology is not ready for use in human embryos that are destined for implantation.

Whilst there are negative applications that comes with CRISPR gene editing, this win for Charpentier and Doudna really illustrates the revolutionary nature of their finding.

This has the chance to be one of the greatest benefits to our society: a potential cure for life-threatening inherited diseases.

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