In the last eight years, geneticists have figured out how to edit humanity’s genetic code using an innovation known as CRISPR. As a result, humanity is approaching the ability to cure horrible genetic diseases and to genetically engineer plants and livestock to improve food supplies. But we are also approaching the question of how far we should allow this technology to go. Do we allow scientists to edit the human genome, or would that be a step too far? And if we do begin editing genomes, do we stop at preventing genetic diseases, or do we begin to augment humanity with superintelligence or extended lifespans? I discussed these, and many more, questions with Kevin Davies on the latest episode of Political Economy.
Kevin is the executive editor of The CRISPR Journal and the founding editor of Nature Genetics. He is also the author of several books, including the recently released “Editing Humanity: The CRISPR Revolution and the New Era of Genome Editing.”
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation, including brief portions that were cut from the original podcast. You can download the episode here, and don’t forget to subscribe to my podcast on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher. Tell your friends, leave a review.
Pethokoukis: Your book’s title is about the “CRISPR revolution,” but I don’t hear about this technology as much as I do about artificial intelligence, for example. So how far along are we in this “revolution”?
Davies: CRISPR really has only been around as a technology for editing DNA and genomes since 2012 and 2013. That was when a series of seminar papers were published in the leading journal, Science, from teams at Berkeley and in Europe and at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. These papers really put in the hands of researchers a tool that is widely available, easy to use, requires no expensive equipment, and gives every researcher the ability to edit the DNA of any organism they wish.
These organisms include bacteria and viruses, plants, animals, extinct animals like woolly mammoths, and human beings. We already see the impact in engineering crops and foods, which made them a bit more drought-resistant, while improving their nutrition. But the area that I focus most on in the book is its medical potential. This is not the next version of gene therapy, where we just add a healthy gene to compensate for a broken gene or replace a broken gene. We’re actually going into cells and using these molecular scissors — fixing and stitching in the appropriate or correct gene sequence to hopefully restore health to patients with cancer, with sickle cell disease, and a growing list of other disorders. It’s an incredibly exciting time.
How far along are we to actually curing things? I don’t know if I see many diseases which have been plagues to humanity being cured.
Yes, you’re correct, but I think you have to give everyone just a little bit of a break because the field is still so new. There’s no miracle cure. Even CRISPR isn’t quite that, and I’m not suggesting that. But given that clinical trials usually take years to proceed, the fact that less than eight years after this technology was first published we’re actually seeing companies now with billion-dollar valuations launching clinical trials and using CRISPR as a gene-editing tool to treat, if not cure, sickle cell disease is breathtaking. It’s absolutely breathtaking.
I hesitate to use the “cure” word, because I think even the most ardent CRISPR supporter will be very reluctant to breathe that word until all the evidence is in. But we are already seeing — particularly, in sickle cell disease, a really debilitating, painful, underfunded, neglected disease that affects millions of people worldwide and thousands of patients in the United States — we’re seeing volunteers with the disease putting themselves out there to take this therapy, and seeing great progress in the first nine to 12 months of receiving their gene therapy. It’s breathtakingly wonderful news.
Do you think the potential of this technology may be greater than artificial intelligence, even if we don’t hear about CRISPR as much? If people a hundred years from now look back, will they look back at this as the beginning of the AI era, or the CRISPR era?
I don’t profess to be an expert on AI, and I think it’s somewhat of an apples and oranges debate. But there’s a reason I call this the “CRISPR revolution” and don’t feel ashamed in calling it a revolution: that’s because this is a fundamental technology. This is the word processor for DNA.
Moreover, there are really other exciting uses beyond curing diseases. I mentioned agricultural biotechnology. New companies are coming up, including companies like Calyxt and Pairwise Plants that are engineering plants, because we’ve got to feed the planet. Our population is growing, and unless we do something to improve the robustness and the nutrition value of crops and staples, we’re going to be in trouble.
Other exciting applications include other spheres of medicine. One of the companies launched by George Church, an outsized figure in genetics and a prominent figure in the book, is called eGenesis. They’re based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They are engineering the DNA of pigs, not to make crispier bacon, but to provide a safe vehicle for organ transplantation. Pigs and humans, physiologically — believe it or not — are incredibly similar. If we could render pig organs safe from some of the hidden sequences in their DNA, they would, in principle, be a wonderfully abundant source of organ transplants. eGenesis has been created to make the pig genome safe to really begin to exploit that possibility.
I’m going to spend some time in our conversation addressing fears people may have. But first, I want to make sure that people have a full understanding of the potential here, which I agree is vast. What would you say that you think is more likely than not to be possible in 10 or 20 years down the road?
Well, I think the reason that people are so excited about CRISPR — just to reinforce a point I made earlier — is that labs around the world in South America, Southeast Asia, Africa are using this. CRISPR is a democratizing technology.
For other genetics branches, like DNA sequencing, the human genome project required really well-funded groups with warehouses full of high-end machinery to crank out the first human genome, for example. CRISPR can be done literally by a high schooler with an internet connection. You have the tools in a test tube at your disposal. The question then is which piece of DNA do you want to edit? There are all kinds of software programs online where you can type in the gene or the sequence you’re interested in targeting and order the primers and reagents you need to begin, and do those experiments.
So that’s exciting, and I would hope and think that in 10 years, we’re going to see some of this true medical potential, where trials are beginning for hereditary blindness, liver diseases, and heart disease. A recently launched company called Verve Therapeutics will be applying CRISPR to tackle heart disease. The list of diseases we are talking about does not consist of just ultra-rare, obscure genetic diseases either. We’re talking about sickle cell disease, heart disease, maybe in a few years diabetes, and maybe eventually mental illness in some form being tackled. This is amazingly exciting.
You write about the accessibility of CRISPR with enthusiasm, but some people will say that the democratization of this powerful technology is pretty alarming. Can we create terrible diseases? Could we alter people permanently in ways that would actually affect the future of humanity? Anyone who’s watched enough science fiction can spin out some scary scenarios.
That’s why I hope the book will interest a wide readership, because it really shows how science fiction is becoming science fact. I think you brought up two really great examples.
One is about “designer diseases,” if I can use that term. I didn’t spend a whole lot of time talking about that in the book, because look we’re already dealing with the ravages of a pandemic that, despite what some may believe, arose in nature. However, the interconnectedness of our world means that these viral crossover events are more and more likely to happen. We had all kinds of warning signs about this pandemic, maybe not this particular virus, but we knew that this was going to happen years and years before it actually struck, but that’s where we are.
There have been fears for a decade or two now about scientists’ potential — if they wished, for nefarious purposes — to synthesize or resynthesize the smallpox genome or something like that. That risk is always with us, and CRISPR potentially makes that a little bit easier. I’m not overly concerned that some rogue agent or country is in a lab somewhere trying to recreate smallpox given where we are.