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CSHL Genome Engineering Meeting Shows Maturing CRISPR Technologies

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – While it didn't make as big a splash as last year, the 2016 edition of the Genome Engineering: The CRISPR/Cas Revolution meeting showed the extent to which the technology is becoming a basic research tool.

Last week, scientists from around the world gathered at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory to share advances in CRISPR and its applications in several fields, including — but certainly not limited to — cancer biology, gene therapy, ag-bio, and DNA repair pathways.

"We're still on the upswing," Jennifer Doudna, of the University of California, Berkeley, told GenomeWeb. "There are lots of people doing creative things with the technology. They're finding other enzymes but also making lots of modifications to existing ones. You can see how the field is starting to mature."

Doudna, along with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center researcher Maria Jasin and UC San Francisco's Jonathan Weissman, organized the meeting, during which top talent in the genome engineering field presented the studies behind papers that have already made headlines as well as some unpublished studies that are working their way through peer review.

Feng Zhang, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, didn't make the same impact as he did last year, when he announced the discovery of the Cpf1 enzyme, but he did update the field on his lab's work on genome editing with alternative CRISPR systems.

Several labs declined to discuss unpublished studies with GenomeWeb because they were under review in peer-reviewed journals. However, several trends popped out from the dozens of presentations and posters.

CRISPR screening is gaining in popularity and is being applied to numerous aspects of functional genomics, including transcription factors, non-coding RNAs, cis regulatory elements such as enhancers, and protein-protein interactions — especially synthetic lethality in cancer cells.

And as more and more labs look at the raw data from genome-editing studies, they're gleaning new information about DNA repair, potentially discovering new pathways at work inside the cell.

There were plenty of presentations for those playing catch-up. As reported by GenomeWeb, Stanford University's Michael Bassik described a comparison of CRISPR and RNAi screens; while UCSF's Joseph DeRisi described using CRISPR/Cas9 for target enrichment in next-generation sequencing.

But largely, the meeting showcased the transition of CRISPR/Cas9 from an object of fascination to a workhorse laboratory tool.

"Last year, a lot of people were coming to this meeting to learn about a new technology that they maybe wanted to start using," Doudna said. "I think what we'll see going forward is increasing sophistication in the way these tools are being applied."

"Increasingly, [CRISPR/Cas9] is no longer necessarily in the title of the paper. It's in the methods, because it's a tool," she said.

Next year's meeting would likely see an even bigger focus on applications, Doudna said, especially in areas beyond biomedical science. "We focused a lot on [biomedical applications] here this year, but looking in other areas of bio, frankly, agriculture is going to be huge, there's no doubt about it."

This year did feature a presentation from DuPont Pioneer on a knockout to create a corn with high levels of a particular starch molecule.

The 2017 edition won't be the only way Doudna will try to bring attention to ag-bio applications. She's working on putting together a public meeting to discuss agricultural and environmental applications of CRISPR/Cas9, such as gene drives in insects. 

"It's very early days, but the initial discussions are about convening a meeting at Berkeley and having the organizers include both companies and academic groups," she said, noting that she'd like to invite other groups not involved in biology research to discuss the implications of CRISPR in those areas.

"Last year, the field wasn't that far along," she said. "It's moving extremely fast."

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