Bioethics Blogs

CRISPR-Cpf1: Hype by Association

Another week, a fresh slew of CRISPR gene editing news and developments.

On September 24 Thomson Reuters predicted that Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier would earn a Nobel Prize in chemistry for their widely celebrated 2012 research on the gene editing complex, CRISPR and associated protein Cas9. We could know as early as October 7 whether the Nobel committee will cut the wait time between publishing and laurels for a chemistry award from its 20-year average since 1985 to just three years.

The same day that the annual Nobel predictions hit the wire, Doudna, Charpentier, and a number of other researchers were gathered at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in New York for the first day of a conference called Genome Engineering: The CRISPR/Cas Revolution. That evening, Charpentier co-chaired a session with Feng Zhang, a co-discoverer of CRISPR’s gene editing capabilities and currently a rival of Charpentier’s and Doudna’s in a patent fight about the discovery. When Zhang took the stage after Charpentier, he pivoted away from CRISPR-Cas9 and, in the words of one participant, “blew us all out of the water.”

Zhang’s talk described a new CRISPR discovery that would be published the next day in Cell: an alternative CRISPR-associated protein called Cpf1. According to a Broad Institute press release,

“Zhang and his collaborators searched through hundreds of CRISPR systems in different types of bacteria, searching for enzymes with useful properties that could be engineered for use in human cells.”

The statement goes on to quote Broad Director Eric Lander asserting that the “Cpf1 system represents a new generation of genome editing technology…with the potential for even simpler and more precise genome engineering.”

Nature
’s and Science’s headlines echoed this assessment, celebrating the discovery as an improvement on Cas9 and a sharper pair of molecular scissors, respectively.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.