Sanger, AstraZeneca Host CRISPR Conference With Focus on Human Biology, Public-Private Bridge

Hinxton, UK (GenomeWeb) – Gathering at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute outside of Cambridge, UK, scientists from around the world have spent the last two days discussing recent advances in CRISPR research as well as the technology's future.

Dubbed "Creating a CRISPR Community," the meeting slanted heavily towards finding ways to use the genome engineering technology in clinical and translational research. The poster sessions were filled with numerous examples of targeting genes relevant to disease or using CRISPR/Cas9 screening to implicate new genes in disease — some presentations showed how genome editing could be used to build better models of disease, in both animals and human cells.

In many ways, the conference was what one might expect from researchers gathered to discuss CRISPR. Not only were there sessions covering research in technology, techniques, and applications, but also reports of bold advances. Keynote speaker Keith Joung of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School presented recent work from his lab on an engineered Cas9 variant that drove down off-target editing below the limit of detection. The next morning, Caribou Biosciences CEO Rachel Haurwitz presented information on a new genome-wide, unbiased method of looking for off-target effects that the company developed in collaboration with DuPont Pioneer — the technique could potentially improve on existing methods.

Where the meeting took a slightly different tone was in its emphasis in bridging public and private enterprises, no doubt influenced by the arrangement between the co-hosts. Approximately a third of the conference attendees came from the private sector: companies in the business of selling therapies, instruments, reagents, and services all sent representatives, sometimes very vocal ones. A networking event akin to speed-dating kicked off the activities, making sure academia and industry were aware of each other's presence, while an event during Monday's lunch break offered a venue for those overtly looking for partnerships or collaborations.

The conference also showed many ways in which CRISPR is already making a difference in traditional drug development. It even closed with a panel discussion, speculating on the path CRISPR might take to the clinic, featuring therapeutics-focused companies, a regulatory expert, and a financier.

If the cloudiness of the intellectual property landscape dampened anybody's outlook on the world-changing ability of CRISPR/Cas9, they refused — sometimes flatly — to acknowledge it. In an informal poll, many attendees said they didn't even pretend to understand the patent dispute over CRISPR/Cas9, waged between parties led by the Broad Institute and the University of California, respectively. Others, representing entities with a stake in the outcome of the patent interference proceedings, declined GenomeWeb's request for comment on that topic altogether.

Regardless of where the US Patent and Trademark Office assigns CRISPR/Cas9's patent rights, this conference demonstrated that the technology will continue to have far-reaching effects. In case after case, scientists told GenomeWeb about how CRISPR helps them do what they were doing already, only faster, cheaper, and more effectively.

If this conference is any indication, it's time to put aside the hype about promise and peril: CRISPR has already arrived and the opportunities are going to be impossible to ignore.

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