In everyday life, when we use the word Crisper we are likely referring to something that keeps produce fresh in the refrigerator…or something to do with the marketing of the beloved potato chip. But in the scientific and healthcare world, it is shorthand for "CRISPR-Cas9 and stands for "clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats." CRISPR is possibly the most impactful area of science to be invented since the discovery of DNA. We are going to learn more about CRISPR, but to do so we just need to remember that DNA is the molecule in all cells that codes for life … and sometimes death. Within many kinds of bacterial cells, some sequences have a unique feature…they read the same in one direction as they do in another. It turns out that there are some molecular scissors that have evolved to cut these sequences … and some remarkable scientists have learned how to take those enzymes and re-program them to cut and edit almost any piece of DNA. When you mistype a word on your phone, you or autocorrect and make things right…in the same way CRISPR technology can make things right when targeted to a specific genetic problem. Molecular biologists of my generation were brought up to think this was impossible…but today, through the work of pioneers that will surely win a Nobel Prize, Genome editing is much more than possible…it is central in how we think about solving some of the world’s most vexing problems.
CRISPR allows researchers to easily alter the DNA in ways that can correct genetic defects, treat and prevent diseases, help combat opioid addition and even improve the ways that we grow food.
With all this incredible promise, though, genome editing desperately needs proactive versus responsive ethical debate. As we have discussed before on Innovation Unleashed…where there is a light…there are shadows…CRISPR can do immense good…but will also do immeasurable harm when misused. Shifting the balance from shadows to light needs pioneers who understand how to harness the good without pretending that there could be bad.
We are fortunate to be able to talk about all of this with an emerging expert on all things Genome Editing. Dr. Samira Kiani is a Professor in the Department of Pathology at the University of Pittsburgh. Samira launched her own lab in 2016 after time at MIT where she worked on developing synthetic gene circuits to reprogram the function and behavior of mammalian cells using CRISPR. In addition to her research work, Samira is passionate about people and how science affects their quality of life. Since 2017, she has been working on a documentary film about what our future looks like in the eye of genomic revolution. In parallel with the documentary film, she is building a communication platform called, “Tomorrow Land,” where she invites people, whether they are scientists or artists or the general public, to submit their opinions about how CRISPR is shaping the future of humanity. She is archiving short video clips that can be arranged together with the help of artificial intelligence.