Among the numerous scientific and technological advances of 2018 it is worth mentioning the genetic edition. Last year while some were debating whether it was right or not to edit food, a scientist created the first genetically modified babies. What’s in store for us 2019?
The year 2018 ended with mixed feelings in the field of genetic publishing. On the one hand, we are still aware of the great potential that CRISPR tools offer us. On the other, we have witnessed the probable first misuse of them. After an absolutely irresponsible experiment carried out without any control or permission, outside the law, in China the first edited babies would have been born.
This news, surely, will lead in 2019 many debates and initiatives to adopt international standards that can prevent similar barbarities from repeating themselves. At least, before the editing procedures are sufficiently secure, and after trying the agreement of all the sectors involved in the society, not only the scientists.
The evolution of CRISPR gene editing techniques is so fast-paced that it may seem reckless to predict what the next breakthrough will be. Thanks to recent results we can imagine that next year will be the consolidation and explosion of the first therapeutic strategies based on CRISPR.
We talked about gene therapies ex vivo, with cells obtained from patients, edited in the laboratory and returned to the same person, aimed at the treatment of blood diseases. For in vivo therapies, directly on patients, we should still wait a little longer. Even so, we may see the first clinical trials conducted on the eye for the treatment of, for example, degenerative diseases of the retina.
New CRISPR systems
The year 2018 began with a surprising result, obtained at Stanford University by researcher Matthew Porteus. He was the one who noticed that most people have antibodies and anti-Cas9 lymphocytes. These serve against the most common nucleases used in the CRISPR world, derived from two pathogenic bacteria for man: Streptococcus pyogenes and Staphylococcus aureus.
The Porteus finding contained an implicit call to the research community to isolate and characterize other CRISPR systems from other bacteria that are unknown to our immune system. Therefore, I think that in 2019 we will begin to discover new CRISPR systems isolated from bacteria that have no known relationship with people.
The year 2019 can also be the year of David Liu, the researcher specialized in Chemistry and Synthetic Biology of the BROAD Institute in Boston. He is the promoter of the so-called base editors, one of the variants of CRISPR tools that has generated higher expectations.
The base editors are formed by a dead Cas9 nuclease, with its inactivated DNA cut domains, but which retains its ability to bind to the desired gene, with the help of RNA guidance. Liu’s sagacity led him to imagine a chemical machine capable of converting a C into a T, or an A into a G, into certain positions.
They use CRISPR to create pigs that could donate their organs
To this end, it linked to the dead Cas9 domains with deaminase activity capable of promoting the conversion of nitrogenous bases, without the need to cut the DNA. This avoids the most important limitation of CRISPR tools: the diversity of genetic alleles produced by the dreaded mosaicism inherent in any genetic editing experiment.
In 2018, microbiologists also discovered ten new systems that bacteria and archaea use to defend themselves against virus infection and the intrusion of unwanted plasmids. We know nothing about the mechanisms that operate after each of these systems, but 2019 could be the year in which we began to discover the functioning of some of them, analogous to CRISPR systems or even better.
Plants edited by CRISPR
The year 2019 will be the year in which we will probably see how other countries, outside our European Union, start to market the first plants published with CRISPR, with improved production, cultivation and organoleptic characteristics.
Unfortunately, and as a result of an inopportune and erroneous judgment of the EU Court, which we met in July 2018, we must content ourselves with being mere spectators of the process. And also customers from countries that will have legislated with more intelligence than we do, supporting biotechnological developments based on new technologies without putting legal impediments that make companies in the sector flee to more appropriate environments.