Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Neither inventor of CRISPR/Cas9 wants to comment on its use for embryo editing

Scientists and administrators at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Broad Institute of M.I.T. and Harvard, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, are both fighting fiercely to win a patent fight over CRISPR/Cas9 technology, a powerful new method of editing genomes with precision and ease. 

Etopia News has been covering the recently-announced approval by the U.K.’s Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority to Dr. Kathy Niakan and her team at the Francis Crick Institute in London to use this CRISPR/Cas9 technology to study the earliest stages of human embryonic development.  Etopia News has covered discussion of this use of biotechnology by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine(CIRM), the creation of customized human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) by this method, the ethical issue of getting informed consent to use donor embryos that does or doesn’t include explicit permission to perform CRISPR/Cas9-mediated alterations to the embryo’s genome, and even the declining of comment on the HFEA’s decision by a candidate for Governor of California in 2018, Gavin Newsom.

Now, the very institutions fighting over the right to claim that they invented CRISPR/Cas9 have both also declined to comment on the use of this technique to edit germline cells in viable human embryos, as approved by HFEA and discussed by CIRM, and whether researchers need to get specific and explicit permission from embryo donors before experimenting on them with CRISPR/Cas9.

The Broad Institute said it wanted to see how things played out with HFEA and Dr. Niakan’s work before saying anything.  Paul Goldsmith, a Media Relations Specialist there, wrote to Etopia News, saying in an e-mail:

“Thanks for your inquiry. Unfortunately, none of our researchers here are working with human embryos (as I'm sure you're aware). We're all watching how things unfold in the UK at the moment, and would rather withhold comment for another time.”

Robert Sanders, Manager, Science Communications in the Office of Media Relations at UC Berkeley, provided some interesting information about the work being done there by Dr. Jennifer Doudna, one of the two parties being credited by their institution as the legitimate inventor of CRISPR/Cas9, along with Dr. Feng Zhang at the Broad.  Here’s what he told Etopia News:

Prof. Doudna does not work with embryonic cells and would not be the right person to address this question. None of her colleagues work with embryos either; they are focused on fixing genetic disease in children and adults, not the embryo. In addition, her schedule is very full and she has to turn down many media requests such as yours. I hope you are able to find an expert on embryonic research who can answer your questions.”

So, while one or both of these researchers may have invented the CRISPR/Cas9 biotechnology, so far, neither of them has publicly expressed their views on whether using it to modify the genomes of viable human embryos is a good idea or not.  Their media spokespersons also seem to share a strong desire to make it clear that neither of them is engaged in any research involving human embryos.

The search for an “expert on embryonic research” who is also willing to take a position on questions about the use of CRISPR/Cas9 in embryo editing and the specificity of permission needed to authorize this technique’s use on donated embryos, will continue.

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