Since my colleagues and I first described CRISPR as a genome-engineering tool in 2012, the technique has transformed fundamental research. More than 15,000 papers containing the term have been published, hundreds of different organisms have been edited and this approach to gene editing has been widely adopted by scientists working on real-world solutions that can change millions of lives.
In 2021, researchers will use CRISPR to enhance our medical response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Teams will continue to collaborate and bring to market vital CRISPR-based diagnostic tools that are accurate, rapid and painless. One currently being developed and scaled by Mammoth Biosciences, a company I co-founded, along with partners at the University of California, San Francisco and the pharmaceutical company GSK, can detect and indicate the presence of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in a similar fashion to a pregnancy test.
While these tools will enable our society to reopen (and stay open) by improving detection of the virus, CRISPR will also have an important effect on the way we treat other diseases. In 2021, we will see increased use of CRISPR-Cas enzymes to underpin a new generation of cost-effective, individualised therapies. With CRISPR enzymes, we can cut DNA at precise locations, using specifically designed proteins, and insert or delete pieces of DNA to correct mutations.
As we deepen our understanding of the human genome and genetic disorders, patients with previously intractable diseases, such as sickle-cell disease and cancer, will benefit more widely from CRISPR-based therapies that are rapidly moving from the lab to the clinic. In 2019, sickle-cell patient Victoria Gray, for example, became one of the first patients in the world to receive CRISPR therapy for her genetic disease. She has already seen significant improvements to her health, including reducedpain and less frequent need for blood transfusions.
CRISPR will also allow us to act more boldly in the face of other important, interconnected issues such as food security, environmental sustainability and social inequality. The technology will help us grow more nutritious and robust crops, establish “gene drives” to control the spread of other infectious diseases such as Zika, and develop cleaner energy sources such as algae-based biofuels.
The positive impact of CRISPR will not absolve us of ongoing questions about its safety, fair access and ethics. The co-ordinated effort led by the WHO and the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to ensure that CRISPR does no harm ramped up after 2018’s “CRISPR babies” controversy. Come 2021, talk of moratoriums, which cannot be enforced by scientists or legislators, will be replaced by robust discussion about how to establish appropriate regulations that will not stifle the technology, but allow it to reach its potential to help those with the greatest need.
Furthermore, our global efforts will redouble to ensure the technology continues to power scientific research, create new jobs and ultimately redefine how humankind might prosper. In a world forever changed by Covid-19, we will find ways to responsibly apply CRISPR in 2021 and beyond.
Jennifer Doudna is a UC Berkeley biochemist and co-inventor of CRISPR