CRISPR: A Present-Day Guide to the current CRISPR Innovation Landscape

Emerging Technologies
July 7, 2017

It has been over a year since Broad Institute scientist, David MacArthur started the epic #crisprfacts Twitterstorm which started as a sarcastic rebuttal to claims that Wired’s August 2016 cover story made about CRISPR.The article’s claims when taken in the wrong context could be very misleading. For instance, to say that “researchers have already reversed mutations that cause blindness, stopped cancer cells from multiplying, and made cells impervious to the virus that causes AIDS,” suggests successful clinical implementation of these innovations, when realistically the clinical era of CRISPR has just begun and actual implementation of most CRISPR technologies is most likely still years away. The twitterstorm by scientists countered with witty, bombastic tweets such as “CRISPR hacked my car” and “CRISPR can edit all jargon except its own name.” To be fair, one does not get a reader’s attention without offering exciting future applications just as one does not begin the CRISPR Twitterstorm of the century with stale ethical discussions. Sources covering CRISPR range from in-the-weeds scientific papers to analyst valuations that seem to only brush the surface to popular science with bombastic promises and futuristic conjectures with insufficient supporting data. In this digital era of information-overload and “fake news,” how does the reader, scientist, investor, student or curious passerby balance between such diverse sources? Sources like SynBioBeta offer pertinent and timely industry news.The Different Types of Synthetic Biology News SourcesAlthough CRISPR is relatively new on the scene, its online coverage far surpasses any other synthetic biology topic. A simple Google search yields nearly 8 million results. The most eye-catching results are the popular science articles splayed across the top of the search page with lines like “pacman-like CRISPR enzymes” and “CRISPR editing may make disease-free DNA.” When taken in the right context, these articles are not only entertaining but can also provide quick-read, diverse highlights of the most recent happenings in CRISPR. However, these sources understandably feed off of public appeal, trend, awareness, relatability and interest. For instance, Google searches for CRISPR reached a sudden peak in October 2016, not coincidentally at the same time when several large CRISPR-focused companies went IPO and JLo announced her role in a new CRISPR TV series on NBC. The take-home lesson? Leave it to Wall Street and Jenny from the Block to raise awareness of any scientific innovation off the charts.CRISPR search results May 2012 to presentA deeper investigation into scientific, investment and tech sources provides a more specific, and often more realistic impression of the current CRISPR prospects. Even aside from academic journal research publications whose titles alone list molecular names that intimidate even the experienced reader, sources like Nature often supplement the published research with reviews and blog posts that summarize and explain the science in the context of its relevancy to the world today. The authors of these articles commonly hold scientific degrees, conduct research of their own or teach, and write on the side.Additionally, sources like SynBioBeta that seek to provide industry professionals and enthusiasts with regular industry-specific updates across the scope of synthetic biology are geared towards factual reporting. This type of reporting often takes the complex data from research publications and distills it into a quick, accurate picture of the innovation in question. Follow Investment, Partnership and Startup NewsJust as the rise in IPOs of CRISPR-targeted companies and heightened media coverage was indicative of a large industry change in October 2016, mid-stage investment and start-up activity can be a great litmus test to an individual trying to distinguish news of tangible innovations versus hype.Simply put, many factors play into the success of a technology and the team behind it, not least of which is clearly a game-changing idea, regardless of the type of media coverage they receive. Take Taxa Biotechnologies, a company whose claims of producing glow-in-dark plants elicited exciting articles announcing, “Glowing Plants Could Act as Biological Night Lights.” The company’s 2013 Kickstarter aimed to crowdsource $65,000 and ended up raising $484,000. However, months later, well-past the 12-month product release deadline, the startup did not make it. While the Glowing Plant Project team had successfully and impressively inserted the six genes necessary, they had unanticipated issues such as the plant’s attempts to silence the genes and the lacking degree of visible light that could be emitted. Perhaps media coverage that not only conveyed the promise of the technology, but also portrayed a current status of the project could have helped the hardworking, creative founders of Taxa Biotechnologies rally support while also promoting a realistic perspective of the science and its applications and its limitations to date.Likewise, the sum of money offered by investors will be relative not only to a team’s ability to produce results with timely marketable applications, but also to the technology’s potential for growth and sustainability in the current landscape. This can be a great way of assessing how relevant the innovation is at this time or in the near future. The August 2016 Wired article mentioned previously stated, “the four companies have already raised at least $158 million in venture capital.” While this seems like an impressive sum of money, breaking down the numbers in the context of the synthetic biology investment industry gives a more accurate glimpse into the reality of the investor confidence level at that point. The $158 million total series A funding scored by these big CRISPR players between 2013 and 2014 was comprised of Intellia’s $15 million, CRISPR Therapeutics’ $25 million, Editas’ larger sum of $43 million, and Caribou’s comparatively scant $2.14 million. To give further context, take into account the $90 million Allergan paid Editas for exclusive rights to five rare eye disease programs. Breaking the sum into its parts, each program is only worth $20 million. As stated by Matthew Herper in Forbes, “there’s nothing like a business development deal to give a sense of scale to a mountain of scientific hype.”Distill Given Information and Weigh the PracticalitiesThis is where the reader must act as the investigator, scientist, investor and critic. And don’t be afraid! Knowing which sources are available, who is delivering the information, what the data and numbers are really representing and how a synthetic biology innovation can be realistically implemented makes a world of difference in understanding the potential of CRISPR technology.

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