Jennifer Doudna: The Promise and Peril of Gene Editing

Geneticist Jennifer Doudna on the controversy about Crispr-Cas9, a technique that could potentially cure genetic diseases.

Geneticist Jennifer Doudna, 52, is waiting for the day when she reads about the first baby whose genes have been altered in a lab. “It’s only a matter of time,” says the professor of chemistry and molecular biology at the University of California, Berkeley—within the next 10 years, she thinks, or even sooner. The idea excites and worries her because she has been so deeply involved in the technology that would make it possible.

Called Crispr-Cas9, it is a way to edit DNA and potentially remove and replace genes for certain diseases, characteristics and capabilities. As scientists have become more comfortable with the technology, its reach has grown—as have ethical concerns about how it may be used.

In 2014, Chinese scientists successfully produced monkeys that had been genetically modified at the embryonic stage using Crispr-Cas9. And last year, another team of researchers in China published a paper about their experiments editing genes in human embryos. (The researchers tried but failed to repair a gene that causes a hereditary blood disease.) Last month, a U.K. regulatory groupapproved research using the technology on viable human embryos. Some scientists, including Dr. Doudna, have called for a moratorium on using Crispr and other gene-editing techniques to bring about any heritable genetic changes in humans.

UC Berkeley is in the midst of a patent battle over the technology’s invention, with billions of dollars at stake. In March 2013, Dr. Doudna and six other scientists filed a patent application with 155 claims related to Crispr-Cas9. In October of that year, scientist Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed his own claims related to Crispr; his application was approved first. UC Berkeley contested his claims, andproceedings began last week at the federal Patent Trial and Appeal Board to determine who invented the technique first. The side that prevails could get all the rights to the technology.

“The Broad Institute looks forward to participating in this process as it provides an opportunity to bring clarity to the field,” said a spokesman.

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