The Quiet Revolution of CRISPR

CRISPR’s not on the cusp of anything.Wikicommons

How many diseases could humans treat if the DNA in troublesome cells could be edited within the body? Half? Most? How about “absolutely everything”? That was the answer Irina Conboy, a bioengineer at U.C. Berkeley, recently gave to New Scientist. Her optimism illustrates the promise, announced three years ago, of CRISPR-Cas9—the new tool scientists have to edit the genome directly, quickly, and cheaply.

What progress might 2018 bring? In October the website Futurism declared, “CRISPR Is on the Cusp of Eradicating a Host of Diseases.” It’d be more accurate to say CRISPR is close to starting some clinical trials on eradication. “The field is currently over-optimistic about possible results of clinical trials,” Alexey Bersenev, the director of the Advanced Cell Therapy Lab at Yale-New Haven Hospital, told MIT Technology Review recently. “Every new and hot biomedical technology usually undergoes an inflated expectations phase.” He wouldn’t be surprised if some of the greenlit trials get delayed to 2019 or beyond.

Back in June of 2016, Nathaniel Comfort, a historian of science, told Nautilus, “The CRISPR revolution is a quiet one.” When we asked, in our Ingenious interview, what he made of the advent of billion-dollar CRISPR companies, like Editas, he anticipated Bersenev’s remarks about CRISPR’s “inflated expectations phase.” “There’s an old cliché in biotech that you buy on the rumor and sell on the product,” he said. CRISPR’s not on the cusp of anything. “It’s not the big explosion that’s going to transform your world overnight,” Comfort said. Instead, “it’s the incremental increases of knowledge and in technology that’s going to really change the way we lead our lives.”

Brian Gallagher is the editor of Facts So Romantic, the Nautilus blog. Follow him on Twitter @brianga11agher.