A revolutionary technology used to edit the DNA of human genomes has been named the Scientific Breakthrough of the Year for 2015.
The gene-editing technique, Crispr-Cas9, has already been employed to alter the genes of ‘spare’ human IVF embryos. Despite mixed views on the controversial experiment done in China, it was still voted by the editors of the American journal Science as the most important research breakthrough of 2015.
Scientists are clearly fascinated by this science wonder, as the tech was a two-time runner-up for the award before winning this year.
“But this is the year it broke away from the pack, revealing its true power in a series of spectacular achievements,” said John Travis, managing news editor of Science.
The British journal Nature also cited Crispr-Cas9 in its “ten people who mattered” in 2015.
Jun Jiu Huang of Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou got special mention for spearheading the experiments, boldly editing the DNA of human IVF embryos despite heavy criticism. His approach was calculated though; he deliberately chose ‘spare’ IVF embryos that were unable to develop in the womb for his experiments, noting he was staying away from viable IVF embryos until it was proven to be safe.
“We wanted to show our data to the world so people know what really happened with this model. We wanted to avoid ethical debate,” he explained.
When the technology first came out, the moral debates against it were strong. It even triggered an international summit in Washington in December to discuss the ethics of engineering the human “germline” – sperm, eggs and embryos – using Crispr-Cas9. Since its two runner-up finishes for the Scientific Breakthrough award, the Crispr-Cas9 has become a ‘molecular marvel’. Over the course of three years, the tech was refined to a highly effective, precise tool for researchers.
“At one point during the human gene-editing summit, Charpentier described its capabilities as ‘mind blowing’. It’s the simple truth. For better or worse, we all now live in Crispr’s world,” said Travis.
Besides editing nonviable IVF embryos, the Crispr has been used to develop so-called “gene drive” technology. Scientists can amp the frequency of genetically-modified traits in a breeding population, ensuring offspring – a 99% accuracy rate – will receive the same traits.
“In short, it’s only slightly hyperbolic to say that if scientists can dream of a genetic manipulation, Crispr can now make it happen,” said Travis.