In this two-part series, we investigate who developed the CRISPR/Cas system as a tool to edit the human genome and the World Economic Forum’s and Bill Gates’ interests in it. When exploring the topic of CRISPR, of course, the harms caused by such technology and what it means for the entire human race, and everything on the planet, cannot be avoided.
In the first part, we take a look at who “invented” the system – it may not be who corporate media have led us to believe – and some basics about CRISPR/Cas and how it works.
In the second part, we use sources from or linked with the World Economic Forum and Bill Gates to demonstrate how they intend to use this tool to edit our DNA.
Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier are the two who have been credited with discovering CRISPR/Cas and transforming it into a tool to edit human genomes – manipulate human DNA. However, the patent rights – which control the valuable intellectual property linked to CRISPR – were challenged by the Broad Institute of MIT (Feng Zhang) and Harvard (George Church).
Each of Doudna, Charpentier, Zhang and their respective backing institutions formed spin-out companies to commercialise the CRISPR/Cas system, partnering variously with big pharma, venture capitalists and fellow disruptive biotech start-ups in a complex series of exclusive licensing deals, joint ventures and strategic collaborations.
Caribou Biosciences and Intellia Therapeutics are associated with the Doudna camp; CRISPR Therapeutics, ERS Genomics and Casebia Therapeutics are associated with Charpentier, and Editas Medicine is associated with Zhang – although notably, Doudna was a co-founder of Editas before falling out with Zhang.
According to Science, by early 2017 a billion dollars had been poured into what might be called CRISPR Inc. from VC firms, pharmaceutical companies, and public stock offerings. Tens of millions of that money went to lawyers as the companies and the academic license holders faced each other down in a battle royale at the US Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”).
Doudna, Charpentier, and collaborators – who collectively are represented by the University of California (“UC”), Berkeley – first filed a patent application in May 2012, whereas the Broad group did not file a patent claim until that December. At the time Broad’s patent was approved, the UC patent was still pending. Broad, which soon filed 11 more patents to support its central claim that Zhang’s team had invented the first CRISPR system to edit human cells, paid USPTO to fast-track the review of its applications. To the surprise of many in the field, USPTO began issuing CRISPR patents to the Broad Institute in April 2014 before deciding on the UC’s earlier patent application.
In 2013 Church, Doudna, and a fourth group separately reported that they could export CRISPR/Cas9 to human cells, which meant that it might be put to work in medical treatments.
Harvard’s Chad Cowan and Kiran Musunuru teamed up with Church and Harvard’s Derrick Rossi, who had recently co-founded ModeRNA Therapeutics, now known as Moderna Inc. The name ModeRNA stems from a combination of the words “modified” and “RNA.”
By the end of 2013, Charpentier and Cowan had joined forces in CRISPR Therapeutics. Zhang, Church, and Doudna helped co-found Editas Medicine, which was born out of the Broad Institute. Sontheimer, Marraffini (now at The Rockefeller University in New York City), Rossi, and Barrangou are all co-founders of Intellia Therapeutics.
USPTO declared a patent “interference” on 11 January 2016, which triggered an expensive, contentious fight. In 2017, the court decided in favour of the Broad Institute, which claimed that they had initiated the research earliest and had first applied it to human cell engineering. UC Berkeley appealed but in 2018 the appeals court decided in favour of the Broad Institute.
The epic legal battle over the foundational patents for CRISPR/Cas genome editing was thought to have ended in a truce in 2019 with the USPTO granting Doudna’s 2013 patent. But in 2020 another one, smaller in scope and involving two long-time CRISPR allies, quietly began: Intellia Therapeutics began an arbitration proceeding against Caribou Biosciences.
It’s possible that neither Doudna’s Berkeley team nor the Broad Institute will reap the rewards of the foundational CRISPR/Cas9 patents. Both are facing challenges on these patents from two other companies: ToolGen in Seoul and Sigma-Aldrich, now owned by Merck in Darmstadt, Germany.
Despite the enormous media coverage and numerous awards, including The Nobel Prize, which Doudna has received over the years as the “inventor” of the CRISPR/Cas system, she may not be legally recognised as such – patents and Nobel prizes are not necessarily judged by the same criteria.
The short video below gives an overview of CRISPR/Cas and is useful to help visualise how CRISPR works when reading the text that follows.
In a 2015 TED speech, Doudna explained that bacteria have to deal with viruses in their environment, and we can think about a viral infection like a ticking time bomb. A bacterium has only a few minutes to defuse the bomb before it gets destroyed.
Many bacteria have in their cells an adaptive immune system called CRISPR that allows them to detect viral DNA and destroy it. Part of the CRISPR system is a protein called Cas9, that’s able to seek out, cut and eventually degrade viral DNA in a specific way, Doudna said. Later in her speech, she goes on to say:
“I actually think that the first applications of the CRISPR technology are going to happen in the blood, where it’s relatively easier to deliver this tool into cells, compared to solid tissues.
“I think that we will see the clinical application of this technology, certainly in adults, within the next 10 years [by 2025]. I think that it’s likely that we will see clinical trials and possibly even approved therapies within that time.
“We have to also consider that CRISPR technology can be used for things like enhancement. Imagine that we could try to engineer humans that have enhanced properties … Designer humans, if you will.”
In a 2021 interview, Doudna told Bloomberg: “Very quickly after we published our work in the summer of 2012 labs around the world began to adapt CRISPR for various kinds of genome editing and it’s just increased since then.” [timestamp 06:13]
“Right now  we know that although it can be used in human embryos, and there are multiple scientific publications about that, we also know that it’s difficult to control it and to make sure that editing is happening exactly as the scientists or experimenter might be desiring.” [timestamp 11:13]
As Spartacus warned in the article titled ‘The Weaponisation of Biotech’, CRISPR is already seeing wide usage in biotechnological contexts. It could also be used to engineer cells and tissues by adding genes that code for wholly synthetic proteins not found in nature. Since protein engineering by hand is beyond the mental capacity of most human beings, due to the many highly complex interactions found in these molecules, scientists are now using computational, machine-learning-based, iterative approaches to protein design.
What could you do with protein design? The more pertinent question here is: what couldn’t you do? Protein design is life design. It is an immensely powerful tool. It is also a means of creating novel weapons. By transfecting genetic material into someone’s cells that generate a designer protein with toxic effects, you can make them very, very ill indeed.
In November 2020, researchers from the Ben-Gurion University demonstrated how malware, used to infiltrate a biologist’s computer, could replace sub-strings in DNA sequencing. The team demonstrated, using malware, transforming residue Cas9 protein sequence into active pathogens. For an unwitting scientist processing the sequence, this could mean the accidental creation of dangerous substances, including synthetic viruses or toxic material.
But it isn’t only laboratories that are experimenting with genome editing using CRISPR. As described by Scientific American in 2017, one DIY scientist – inspired by Doudna’s 2012 paper published in the journal Science – started experimenting with CRISPR in 2013. And by early 2013, DIY CRISPR kits were available from The Odin for anyone to purchase online and try at home.
In April 2013 German authorities restricted imports of the Odin DIY CRISPR bacteria kit after the Bavarian Health and Food Safety Authority tested two kits and found them to contain potentially pathogenic bacteria.
But the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control concluded that there was little to worry about – that “the risk of infection by the contaminating strains in the kit is low for the users … assuming that they are healthy people.”
Further reading: Mail-Order CRISPR Kits Allow Absolutely Anyone to Hack DNA, Scientific American, 2 November 2017
Despite unleashing a dangerous, uncontrolled and uncontrollable technology into the world that has irreversible effects, and despite the ongoing challenge as to who the patent holders of CRISPR are, Doudna and her co-inventor, Emmanuelle Charpentier, won The Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020 for the development of CRISPR/Cas9.
Why? Perhaps Doudna’s work is somehow connected to an agenda, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, say? Or does she have some wealthy friends, for example, members of the World Economic Forum? In the next part of this series, we’ll briefly explore Doudna, CRISPR, the World Economic Forum and Bill Gates.