On 21 October 2019, a new gene-editing tool that will be the talk of the town in the coming years, Prime Editing, was presented. It significantly improves the accuracy and efficiency of CRISPR by avoiding unwanted mutations. In theory, this new tool has the potential to correct 89% of the 75,000 human genetic variants associated with diseases and opens up a business niche for laboratories, materials chemistry, food companies and agriculture.
This is the latest episode in an adventure that began almost a decade ago, when the CRISPR system, especially in combination with the Cas9 protein, revolutionised and made gene editing of any organism possible.
Although effective tools for editing genes in bacteria had existed for decades, it was in 2000 when the University of Alicante professor Francis Mojica discovered the existence of CRISPR in a third of all bacteria and in 2005 when he linked its existence to immunity to viruses. But the turning point came in 2012 when Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna described its usefulness for gene editing in an article published in the prestigious journal Science.
Gene editing techniques are mainly used in basic research for the study of gene regulation. In biomedicine, for the generation of new cell and animal models for disease research, and in the field of plant biotechnology, the focus is on improving crop quality and generating resistance to pests. There is also an avenue of research into industrial biotechnology in the biosynthesis of pharmaceuticals and biofuels. All these alternatives offer important environmental benefits.
Among all the diseases that are the subject of research using this technique, cancer immunotherapy is one of the ones that has aroused most interest among researchers. The aim, in this case, is to take advantage of the patient's own immune system to kill tumour cells. But it will also make it possible to combat other diseases: cardiovascular diseases, muscular dystrophy, sickle cell anaemia and Alzheimer's disease.
As explained by the scientist Lluis Montoliu, author of the book Editing genes: cut, paste and colour. The wonderful CRISPR tools (NextDoor Publishers, 2019), in the portal NaukasThere are two sets of CRISPR-based applications for diagnosing and combating the coronavirus, the pandemic that is sweeping the world in 2020.
The global gene editing market accounted for $3bn in 2017 and estimates put it at $7.5bn by 2024, of which CRISPR technology will account for 40% ($3bn). The United States leads the way in gene editing investment, closely followed by Europe and China. None of these powers and other countries that are betting heavily on this technology, such as Japan, India and Korea, are unaware of the potential of some of the applications. Specifically, the field of biotechnology will account for 31% of the global healthcare market by 2024, according to the report. Deloitte Global Life Sciences Perspective.
A race to which Spanish research is no stranger. By mid-March 2020, Spain had registered a total of 24,139 medical trials involving different techniques and objectives linked to gene editing.
Opportunity for Spain
Gene editing represents an excellent opportunity for Spain, both from a health and economic point of view. CRISPR, a technique that was discovered in our country, reveals the talent of Spanish researchers. The increase in recruitment in the labour market for professions related to this sector and the emergence of an industry with high added value call for a firm commitment.
It will be crucial for the success of this technology and its industrial exploitation how the European Union finally defines the legislation on CRISPR genetically modified organisms, which the European Court of Justice equated in July 2018 to GMOs.
Ethical regulation must also evolve to allow the clinical use of gene editing in humans. In January 2019, the Spanish Bioethics Committee (CBE) ruled against gene editing of human embryos. Beyond the ethical doubts it raises, the committee believes that the teaTEC_EG_OPTThe CRISPER/Cas9 technique has not yet passed the level of safety required for clinical use in humans.