By David Dittman
Two television shows are integrating the CRISPR gene-editing technique into their storylines. Yes, the technology is THAT exciting. But work being done in comparatively boring laboratory and clinical settings holds incredible promise for fighting deadly diseases.
Here’s how big gene-editing technology is:
Word around Hollywood is that Jennifer Lopez is producing C.R.I.S.P.R., a primetime “futuristic procedural” drama, for NBC.
Yes, Jennifer Lopez, J. Lo, “Jenny from the Block.”
And, yes, that CRISPR — short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.
According to an October 18, 2016, “exclusive” from The Hollywood Reporter, C.R.I.S.P.R. is a “thriller set five minutes into the future that explores the next generation of terror: DNA hacking.”
If the network picks it up:
Each episode will explore a bio-attack and crime — from a genetic assassination attempt on the president to the framing of an unborn child for murder. The show’s central character is a scientist with the CDC who is paired with an FBI agent. In the same vein of Castle, romance will blossom between the scientist and the FBI agent as they team to bring down a diabolical genius with a twisted God complex: her former boss. The drama will see mentor and protégé battle for control over the human genome in a game of cat and mouse in which the future of our species may rest and all disease could one day be eradicated.
Vulture, New York magazine’s web-based entertainment property, described these details as “almost too absurd to believe.”
“Almost” is the operative word.
CRISPR has been described by MIT Technology Review as “the biggest biotech discovery of the century.”
As we noted in the September 21 Wall Street Daily, “The technology is incredible: It holds the very real possibility of quickly and easily identifying and eliminating genetic anomalies so we can treat and cure diseases.”
But there are serious concerns, too.
Indeed, as we also reported on September 21, “The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is preparing protocols that seem to be bracing for gene warfare, due to concern in some quarters that the tech can be used to create biological weapons.”
The J. Lo announcement dovetails nicely with some more substantive CRISPR news.
In fact, on October 18, CRISPR Therapeutics AG (NASDAQ:CRSP) priced its initial public offering (NYSEARCA:IPO) of 4 million shares at $14 per share. It started trading on the Nasdaq Global Market on October 19.
As of November 16, CRISPR Therapeutics shares are changing hands at $20.39, about 46% above the IPO price.
Barclays Plc (NYSE:BCS) initiated coverage of the stock on Monday, November 14, with an “overweight” rating and a $22 12-month price target.
Away from the market and into the lab, research published October 25 by the journal Cell Reports details the efficiency of the CRISPR/Cas9 technique.
Scientists from the University of California, San Francisco and the Gladstone Institutes found that they could “edit multiple genes simultaneously.” This allowed them to study “interactions among multiple host and viral factors” in a laboratory setting.
The goal was to identify which mutations to which T-cells created effective defenses to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
The ease of the CRISPR/Cas9 sped up the process. In addition to validating the technique as “a discovery platform,” scientists were able to identify “several candidate dependency/restriction factors” that should lead to new drugs and therapies “to cure HIV infection.”
And we learned this week, via Nature, that a Chinese team led by Sichuan University oncologist Lu You executed the first injection into a human of genes edited using the CRISPR/Cas9 technique.
The patient, who suffers from aggressive lung cancer, is participating in a clinical trial at West China Hospital.
Scientific American relates that Lu says “that the treatment went smoothly, and that the participant will get a second injection, but declined to give details because of patient confidentiality.”
According to University of Pennsylvania immunotherapy specialist Carl June, this news could trigger a “biomedical duel” between China and the U.S. comparable to the original space race of the 1950s and ’60s.
June is part of a U.S. team that hopes to begin human-focused clinical trials targeting three genes in early 2017.
A different Chinese team is set to test CRISPR for bladder, prostate, and renal-cell cancers starting in March 2017.
J. Lo’s C.R.I.S.P.R. isn’t the first attempt to adapt CRISPR for entertainment.
As Inverse reported on October 3, with regard to another new Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) series about a Marvel Universe hero, “The new Cage show on Netflix makes it explicit that Dr. Noah Burstein made Carl Lucas into Luke Cage using the very real gene-editing technique known as CRISPR and some abalone DNA.”
As the character Burstein states, “We used a process called CRISPR to fuse the subject’s DNA with another DNA to gain its attributes.” And that’s theoretically possible.
At the same time, the reality of CRISPR is shaping up in amazing fashion.
As Naiyer Rizvi of Columbia University Medical Center said to Scientific American: “The technology to be able to do this is incredible.”