In 2012, Jennifer Doudna, along with a small group of scientists, invented a ground-breaking technology to edit DNA known as Crispr. Scientists are still experimenting with it.
Crispr has been in the news recently because a group of scientists released a much-debated study arguing that editing genes can lead to many unintended, unpredictable consequences. In the controversial case, the scientists edited genetic blindness out of a group of mice and said they found two thousand unintended consequences. The scientific community is split on the results, and Doudna said it’s hard to conclude anything from the study. But she knows the possible dangers of gene editing, and she warned about them in a Wired article in May.
Marketplace’s senior tech correspondent Molly Wood spoke with Doudna at the Wired Business Conference in New York earlier this month and asked Doudna what concerns her the most about her revolutionary new technology?
The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Jennifer Doudna: I guess I worry about a couple of things. I think there’s sort of the potential for unintended consequences of gene editing in people for clinical use. How would you ever do the kinds of experiments that you might want to do to ensure safety? And then there’s another application of gene editing called gene drive that involves moving a genetic trait very quickly through a population. And there’s been discussion about this in the media around the use of gene drives in insects like mosquitoes to control the spread of disease. On one hand, that sounds like a desirable thing, and on the other hand, I think one, again, has to think about potential for unintended consequences of releasing a system like that into an environmental setting where you can’t predict what might happen.
Molly Wood: How important is the accessibility? You know, you could buy a Crispr kit online for $150. What does that kind of accessibility lead to, either in terms of opportunity or problems?
Doudna: I think it’s mostly a really good thing in the sense that it makes the science more tangible. I honestly feel that things that break down the barriers between scientists and technologists and everybody else, in a way, is a good thing. Although it’s easy to use this technology for those that have some training in molecular biology, it’s actually not going to be very easy to do anything that would be particularly dangerous in my opinion.
Wood: How do you think this technology could change the way we practice medicine? I mean, if we’re really talking about potentially curing genetic diseases, it seems like a whole industry will be affected by that.
Doudna: I think it’s a fascinating question, and I’ve been thinking about this a lot and having a number of discussions with folks that work in the pharmaceutical industry — to think about really changing the paradigm for how we do human therapeutics, at least for certain types of disease. Imagine that you had a technology or a treatment that allowed, rather than having someone take a pill every day for the rest of their life, that you had a treatment that you could do once and cure them. It also brings along a lot of other issues. Who pays for that? How do you price such a thing? How do you get insurance companies to cover it? Even if there won’t be easy answers, I think the first step is really just to realize that that’s the moment that we’re in right now.
Wood: One of the things I find fascinating is the intellectual property part of the conversation — to what extent people might try to patent genetically modified versions of organisms or plants or even human genes?
Doudna: It’s very difficult to patent genes. But I think you’re touching on an important point. I think the real value of a technology like this that really allows research to move at a much faster pace than it has in the past, is that it opens up opportunities for applications that I think will lead to incredible commercial opportunities and creative things to make products that couldn’t have been generated in the past. And along with that, of course, goes all of the issues regarding regulation and pricing and things like that.
Wood: Jennifer, on that question of regulation and pricing, do you have a sense of what body might end up being in charge of that? Because it’s really a global issue on some level, right?
Doudna: It is. But I think a lot of it will come down to initial regulatory approval. If we’re talking about agricultural products in the U.S. we’re talking about the U.S. Department of Agriculture. We might be talking about the Food and Drug Administration, certainly for therapeutics. Of course that affects pricing and valuations, because if there is an onerous regulatory pathway for things, then that adds to the cost of developing them. So this is why I think it’s actually very important that scientists be engaging right now with these agencies to set up appropriate regulations, but also not ones that are so onerous that it really prevents development of important products.