CrisprCon is not a place where spandexed, beglittered, refrigerator drawer fans come together for an all-you-can-eat celebration of unwilted produce. No. Crispr-Cas9 (no E), if you haven’t been paying attention, is a precise gene editing tool that’s taken the world by storm, promising everything from healthier, hangover-free wine to cures for genetic diseases. Like, all of them. And CrisprCon is where people come not to ask how to do those things, but rather, should we? And also, who’s the we here?
On Wednesday and Thursday, the University of California, Berkeley welcomed about 300 people—scientists, CEOs, farmers, regulators, conservationists, and interested citizens—to its campus to take a hard look at the wünderenzyme known as Cas9. They discussed their greatest hopes and fears for the technology. There were no posters, no p-values; just a lot of real talk. You can bet it was the first Crispr conference to sandwich a Cargill executive between a septagenarian organic farmer and an environmental justice warrior. But the clashing views were a feature, not a bug. “When you feel yourself tightening up, that’s when you’re about to learn something,” said moderator and Grist reporter, Nathanael Johnson.
Which, to be honest, was totally refreshing. Serious conversations about who should get to do what with Crispr have been largely confined to ivory towers and federal agencies. In February the National Academy of Sciences released a report with its first real guidelines for Crispr, and while it suggested limitations on certain applications—like germline modifications—it was silent on questions outside of scientific research. What sorts of economies will Crispr create; which ones will it destroy? What are the risks of using Crispr to save species that will otherwise go extinct? Who gets to decide if it’s worth it? And how important is it ensure everyone has equal access to the technology? Getting a diverse set of viewpoints on these questions was the explicit goal of CrisprCon
Why was that important? Greg Simon, director of the Biden Cancer Initiative and the conference’s keynote speaker, perhaps said it best: “Crispr is not a light on the nation, it’s a mirror.” In other words, it’s just another technology that’s only as good as the people using it.
Panel after panel took the stage (each one, notably, populated with women and people of color) and discussed how other then-cutting-edge technologies had failed in the past, and what history lessons Crispr users should not forget. In the field of conservation, one panel discussed, ecologists failed to see the ecosystem-wide effects of introduced species. As a result, cane toads, red foxes, and Asian carp created chaos in Australia and New Zealand. How do you prevent gene drives—a technique to spread a gene quickly through a wild population—from running similarly amok?
From the agricultural field, the lessons were less nebulous. First-generation genetically modified organisms failed to gain public support, said organic farmer Tom Willey, because they never moved agriculture in a more ecologically sustainable direction and it never enhanced the quality of food people actually ate. At least, noticeably so. Instead, most modifications were to commodity crops like corn and soy to improve their pest resistance or boost yields.] “It was a convenience item for farmers,” he said. “And a profit center for corporations.” In order for gene-edited foods to avoid the same fate, companies like Monsanto, Dupont Pioneer, and Cargill, who have already licensed Crispr technologies, will need to provide a more tangible value than corn you can spray the bejeezus out of. Like say, extra-nutritious tomatoes, or a wine with 10-times more heart-healthy resveratrol and fewer of the hangover-causing toxins.
The presence of executives from each of these three companies signaled that they’re serious about not making the same mistakes they did in the ‘90s when GMOs first came to market. “Back then we were only talking to farmers,” said Neal Gutterson, vice president of R&D at Dupont Pioneer during a break between panels. “I can’t remember anyone going to anything like this or casting as wide a net in our discussions with the public.”
Of all the fields Crispr will touch, medicine is the one most primed for disruption. So it’s of great concern to conference-goers that Crispr doesn’t become a technology only for the haves and not the have-nots. Shakir Cannon, founder of the Minority Coalition for Precision Medicine, pointed out the myriad ways doctors and researchers have exploited people of color in the name of scientific advancement, while neglecting diseases that hit underserved communities the hardest. In a breakout session on Wednesday, Rachel Haruwitz—CEO of Caribou Biosciences, one of the big three Crispr companies—asked Cannon and his colleague, Michael Friend, how industry leaders could help make sure that doesn’t happen. “First, you have to build trust with communities,” said Friend, whose work focuses on [[TK]]. “But we think Crispr could be a real turning point.”
Still, CrisprCon was just more talk—which the field has seen a lot of recently. Crispr’s co-discoverer Jennifer Doudna has taken a step back this past year from her lab at Berkeley to travel the world and discuss the importance of coming to what she calls a “global consensus” on appropriate uses for gene editing technologies. And in her opening address on Wednesday, the standing-room-only auditorium heard a line she’s trotted out many times before. “I’ve never seen science move at the pace it’s moving right now,” Doudna said. “Which means we can’t put off these conversations.” The conversations happening at CrisprCon were all the right ones. But action, whether in the form of regulations, laws, or other populist social contracts, still feels a long way off.