Biology’s Third Revolution

Pharma IQ

At the recent CRISPR summit  conference Pharma IQ spoke to Ben Borgo of Agilent Technologies about the future of the gene editing technique.

This interview was prepared with Ben Borgo in his personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the interviewee's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Agilent Technologies, Inc.

How quickly do you think CRISPR will progress in the next three years?

Ben: “I think that the progression of CRISPR we’ve seen over the past few years has been amazing and there’s every indication that it will continue.  

In the past, biology has advanced through these bursts of technology development. Things like PCR absolutely fundamentally changed the way people do biology. Before that it was all about the Darwinian approach or the Mendelian approach, where you are taking notes and watching something happen very, very slowly.

After PCR it was NGS - both of those revolutions were relatively slow. CRISPR is the third big revolution in biology and it has been extraordinarily rapid.

We are already seeing new applications like CRISPR activation and interference as well as people fusing methylation domains, using the technique for epigenetics and doing mutagenesis with CRISPR. It’s amazing the number of applications that have emerged in such a short period of time.

How will the use of libraries help the application and the delivery of CRISPR?

Ben:   An important thing to realise is that we have not reached the full potential of the tool’s impact on biology yet.  Tools like libraries are really taking that single edit approach and parallelising it on a very, very large scale. That’s being used to do functional screening and target discovery.

People are now taking this revolutionary tool and just beginning to understand how to use it and applying it to old problems.

I think when we start to bridge between those high-throughput approaches to genome editing and the low throughput approaches to genome editing, we will see applications emerge that we haven’t even thought of yet.

We’re going to see breakthroughs like significant numbers of parallel edits being conducted in a single organism. That opens-up entirely new applications within areas like personalised medicine and the development of very tailored approached to genetics that we just don’t have at the moment.


What fields will we see CRISPR used in the future?

Ben:   I think everyone has been extraordinarily accepting of CRISPR as a technology. Even despite the reticence, in some cases, to tackle the ethics of genome editing and some of the trepidation attached to a tool that allows you to manipulate DNA so simply and easily. I think people have been very accepting of what they can do, versus what they should do.

I think researchers are respecting the boundaries of what they should to, while at the same time really pushing what they can do. Today’s event is a great example – we have had representatives from developmental biology, neurobiology, for instance. Everyone is looking for a way to use the tool and I think that’s great.

The research based applications are the most powerful right now and is where people are pushing the limits. The therapeutic applications, while delicate, are something that individuals are actively looking into, also.

So, you mentioned the line parting what you can and what you should do. How do you think regulation will step in to prevent the misuse of CRISPR?

Ben:   By and large scientists are pretty good at self-regulating. There aren’t a lot of rogue folks out there who are doing things that are morally questionable.

Generally, the industry understands the power of the tool and restricts itself to working within the bounds of things that are not going to cause problems in the future.

It’s always a risk that regulatory agencies will step in and try to stop the progress that people are making, just solely out of fear of the potential ramifications if there is one rogue person.

However, I think that that’s rare, in most countries around the world, the regulatory agencies have progressed to the point of wanting to avoid slowing down progress.