Report: Why is it important to get on the innovation train with CRISPR?
Cancer, infectious and genetic diseases, sustainable food for all, drought-resistant plants, the bioeconomy and functional foods. These are just some of the applications for CRISPR that AseBio members are working on every day. We spoke with some of them
At AseBio, we want to start off by defining what CRISPR is and, above all, what makes it different from GMOs, which have been so controversial. We consulted experts José Miguel Mulet, a researcher at the Institute for Plant Molecular and Cell Biology (IBMCP), and Richard Borreani, head of Public Affairs Science and Sustainability at Bayer Crop Science, who clearly differentiated the two tools.
CRISPR technology consists in modifying a genome in an organism to make minimal, very specific changes; the other technique is based on adding a foreign gene to a different living being to create a new organism. “They have nothing to do with each other. Saying they’re the same is a scientific aberration,” says Mulet. Borreani notes that is part of why it is important for European law to allow society and consumers to benefit from the advantages of this novel technology. “For that to happen, we have to explain things so consumers can understand. We can’t let this train pass us by,” adds Borreani.
No one is questioning that CRISPR, a revolutionary tool for science and innovation, has a long and promising journey ahead. There are many things still to be discovered with it, although there are already many applications underway. Some AseBio members have already gotten down to business.
Free rein for the healthcare sector
The benefits of CRISPR are very clear in the field of human health. In fact, the doors are much wider open in this arena. Simone Calzolari, CEO of ZeClinics, concurs. The company recently announced some great news: they have been granted a license to create disease models in gene-edited zebrafish in just three months and sell them to over 50 clients so they can test the efficacy of their drugs and therapies. Without CRISPR, none of this would be possible. “CRISPR is the only tool that allows us to make the changes we need now to generate disease models. It’s the only way we have to generate these models,” says Calzolari.
This expert sees no limit to CRISPR and insists that this method allows them to create a whole range of monogenic diseases and focus precisely on the genes involved. “That is why, during a healthcare crisis, CRISPR has a very promising future. It will allow us to make discoveries and will be able to be used directly to correct certain genome anomalies in humans,” he explains. In short, CRISPR opens up the possibility of curing patients practically at birth, or even as adults. “It has a very wide reach and regulatory bodies have to make the process faster and easier. They have to pay attention to see this new system can cure diseases and help get it to market as quickly as possible,” finishes Calzolari.
At CNIO, the Spanish National Cancer Research Center, they are working with CRISPR to better understand cancer and its consequences, adapting it as a tool for gene editing. The team led by Dr. Sandra Rodríguez-Perales, head of the Molecular Cytogenetics and Genome Editing Unit, has just published a paper that proposes using the CRISPR system directly to eliminate tumor cells selectively. The first thing this expert points out is the versatility of the tool, and its potential. They quickly saw it is a fast system that yields results in months instead of years. “This field is evolving so quickly that we have to work constantly to stay up to date. Sometimes it’s hard to keep on top of all the new applications that come out. Plus, it is so versatile that it can be adapted to answer almost any biological question. From a biotech standpoint, it is a fantastic tool because it allows for innumerable applications,” she stresses.
Given all these advantages, the scientist firmly believes it is a system that will be incorporated into clinical practice. “However, it is a fairly new system, so before it can be used on humans we have to learn more about it to make sure it is safe. As we’re developing new clinical applications, we need to develop regulatory control mechanisms,” concludes Rodríguez-Perales. Researcher Raúl Torres, from the same lab, also joined the debate: “CRISPR, the same as other cancer therapies like radiotherapy and chemotherapy, isn’t free of side effects. The system has to be subject to the same regulatory procedures as any other innovative therapy,” he explains.
Locked doors for the agrifood sector
Why are there so many barriers in the agrifood sector when in health everything seems much more open? “Because people have food in their fridges,” answers Mulet without hesitating. A therapy, however, is seen as something complex that needs CRISPR to advance and not as an item available in the hundreds at any supermarket, every day. But land is finite and the population just keeps growing, so CRISPR seems like the key solution to feeding everyone in the years to come. “Our great challenge is to have enough quality food at affordable prices for everyone. And this isn’t so easy,” warns Borreani, convinced we need to regulate this tool. “CRISPR and GMOs have to be regulated because, if not, we won’t be able to feed the world,” adds Mulet.
Natac, an AseBio member that is a key company in bioeconomics, focuses on extracting and isolating bioactive compounds from plants. “Tools like CRISPR and other highly precise plant-breeding techniques are going to revolutionize the sector over the coming decades. This technology opens the doors for producing certain plant metabolites much more efficiently and cost-effectively, which wouldn’t be possible otherwise,” explains the company’s US Director Noela González. This technology allows us to develop new applications for traditional crops, or new crops that give rise to activity with high value added and could put a region on the cutting edge of agriculture. “No doubt, it is a commitment to the future,” the expert adds.
Despite the evidence, governmental decisions remain at a standstill. Daniel Ramón Vidal, director of R&D at Biopolis, is very pessimistic about the possibility of changing the stance of the European Union (EU). “I know the EU’s track record and what happened with GMOs. In healthcare, there’s no debate when it comes to producing a drug, but here it’s an ideological issue. There’s a whole series of interests created by the stakeholders involved,” the expert laments.
Biopolis doesn’t launch any CRISPR-based products to market. It is a tool that stays inside the laboratory walls, used to test the mechanism of action for their probiotics and the molecule responsible for that process. “We want to learn more about what we sell and sell things with a very solid scientific base. I’m convinced that CRISPR is going to be an essential tool in any research laboratory. The problem, though, is commercial application. The EU has made its decision and there’s very little we can do about it,” he insists.
Noela González also believes it would be a mistake for the European Union to put up insurmountable barriers to this type of technology, “which is clearly unstoppable and has great potential.” Plus, this technology yields products that are hard to differentiate from those created with traditional technology. “So, it will be difficult to draw effective lines to keep out products that have been created with this technology in other countries, which means Europe would be left behind,” warns the US Director of Natac.
Borreani believes that, to avoid this, the key is to share and raise awareness, which is what was missing in the past with GMOs, in his mind. “When they understand the benefits a new technology can have, people accept it more easily.” Communication is the big opportunity we have today to show the benefits of these types of technology and it is clear that there is a lot left to explain. When you ask people “What is CRISPR?”, many still don’t know what to say. “Most people don’t know what it is or what it’s for,” adds Mulet, also known for his work in scientific dissemination. In short, alongside generating knowledge, the most essential element is for legal regulations to be on our side because, all the experts we spoke with agreed, CRISPR is the future. “While the rest of the world is researching, we’re debating. We have to get going now,” the researcher concludes.
By Agathe Cortes (with On-Translation)