Gene editing technology CRISPR-Cas9, a bacterial-protein derived innovation allowing scientists to cut and paste certain DNA portions, emerged as Science magazine’s 2015 Breakthrough of the Year.
The technology, discovered in 2007 after a yogurt company found a surprising mechanism of bacteria to ward off viruses, was conceived in 2012 and experienced a massive growth spurt in 2014. John Travis, Science's managing news editor, dubbed it as a “molecular marvel” that won the attention of biologists and the rest of the world.
“[T]his is the year it broke away from the pack, revealing its true power in a series of spectacular achievements,” said Travis of CRISPR, which became a Breakthrough runner-up in 2012 and 2013.
CRISPR beat the Pluto mission this year in the tilt, which included a shortlist of 40 to 45 entries before being narrowed down to the winners.
Back in July, the New Horizons spacecraft of NASA transmitted images of nitrogen glaciers, icy mountains and tumbling moons on the dwarf planet.
According to Travis, 2015 is CRISPR’s year for several reasons, including the conception of a “gene drive” that can eliminate disease-carrying pests, and the first deliberate editing of human embryo DNA.
The embryo project, which was conducted in China using a fertility clinic’s nonviable embryos, birthed an international summit this month to further flesh out the matter of human gene editing. Scientists at the summit said CRISPR could precisely deliver a gene to the right spot, compared to previous methods.
“The summit confronted a fraught - and newly plausible - prospect: altering human sperm, eggs or early embryos to correct disease genes or offer ‘enhancements,’” added Travis.
The magazine also focused on CRISPR being easy and inexpensive, citing the comment of University of Utah’s Dana Carroll about the technology inciting the “democratization of gene targeting.”
In 2015, too, scientists conducted a CRISP-prompted deletion of 62 copies of a pig genome's retroviral DNA, as showcased by a Harvard team in a published paper in the journal Science in November.
Bioethics professor John Harris, who spoke at the gene editing summit, said science needs to pursue gene editing and make it safe enough for human use.
Editor-in-chief of the Science family of journals Marcia McNutt echoed the technology’s promise. "In two years' time CRISPR will have brought to many diverse fields in biology the enduring level of excitement and optimism that immunotherapy has brought to cancer patients,” she said in an editorial.
Research on the CRISPR technology has also started in nonreproductive or somatic cells, which in its early phases would involve different kinds of blood stem cells, reported law and bioethics professor Pilar Ossorio at the Washington summit.
Ossorio explained that this therapy could assist diabetics whose pancreatic cells make insulin insufficiently, with gene therapy targeted toward pancreatic islet cells for that purpose.
Travis also predicted the use of gene editing use in agriculture, with more genetically modified plants potentially in the works.
For Science magazine's People’s Choice award, joining CRISPR (20 percent) in the top picks were Pluto (35 percent) and lymphatic system in the central nervous system (15 percent).
Photo: Stew Dean | Flickr