CRISPR gene editing is already treating disease. But there’s far more it might do, from fighting cancer and covid-19 to putting the brakes on climate change, says Feng Zhang, a pioneer of the technique
7 October 2020
[UPDATE: After this article went to press, it was announced that Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna had been awarded the 2020 Nobel prize in chemistry for pioneering the CRISPR gene-editing technique.]
IT IS no exaggeration to call Feng Zhang one of the most groundbreaking scientists working today. In his 20s and 30s, he helped develop two revolutionary technologies. The first, known as optogenetics, involves inserting genes into brain cells to allow them to be switched on and off by shining a light on to them. This technique has helped us understand how the brain works and is being explored as a potential treatment for some neurological conditions.
The second, CRISPR, is a gene-editing technology that promises to correct a near-limitless list of human diseases. These days, Zhang has a dual appointment at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research and the Broad Institute, both in Massachusetts, and is often spoken of as a future Nobel laureate.
Powerful tools can be used in different ways, however, and when it comes to CRISPR, there have already been some worrying developments. Two years ago, biophysicist He Jiankui was widely criticised – and eventually handed a prison sentence – for using CRISPR to gene edit human embryos. Many researchers, including Zhang, feel his actions were an ethical overstep.
Meanwhile, Zhang is party to an ongoing dispute over who should own the patent for CRISPR. Other scientists were first to publish details of the technology, but he was quickest to show it works in human cells.
New Scientist caught up with Zhang to discuss those controversies and to get the low-down on the future …