What Will 120 Million CRISPR Dollars Buy?

Biopolitical Times

Grandiose visions of gene-editing tool CRISPR’s ability to change! revolutionize! transform! the world recently reached a zenith of absurdity in a WIRED cover story titled The Genesis Engine. The article triggered the Twitter hashtag #CRISPRfacts, which for days was devoted to poking fun at the overly optimistic tenor of CRISPR’s press. But the financial world is viewing CRISPR dreams as no laughing matter.

On August 10, Editas Medicine announced that Bill Gates, Google Ventures, Deerfield Management, and other investors have funded CRISPR to the tune of $120 million. In what seems to be a case of self-fulfilling prophecy, the biotech financial press declared that money changes everything, or as one headline put it, “CRISPR: Editas’ $120M proves it isn’t a bunch of hype.”

The $120 million investment takes place amid a CRISPR patent fight between two Editas co-founders: Feng Zhang (Broad Institute) and CRISPR’s celebrated innovator Jennifer Doudna (UC Berkeley) who has since left Editas. It’s the largest round of financing yet for CRISPR, though as Xconomy noted, it’s only a fraction of the private biotech financing record set by Moderna Therapeutics earlier in 2015, when it raised $450 million for messenger RNA drug development.

So there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. Bill Gates and Google, of course, have their hands deep in other pies of sexy research funding including Gates’ backing of Wi-Fi activated birth control (speculated to arrive in 2018) or Calico’s “longevity research.”

One of the striking points of the recent funding announcement is the first condition Editas is targeting, a rare form of genetic blindness called leber congenital amaurosis (LCA) that affects roughly 1,000 people in the United States – well under the 200,000-person number that qualifies as an “orphan disease.” Those 1,000 people may be seeking medical help, and it’s certainly possible that a CRISPR treatment for LCA will turn out to be a step toward treating other diseases. But it’s an important point to consider.

A recent article by Ronald Bayer and Sandro Galea in the New England Journal of Medicine, "Public Health in the Era of Precision Medicine," acknowledges that precision medicine may ultimately make “critical contributions to a narrow set of conditions that are primarily genetically determined.” Yet, they argue, “the challenge we face to improve population health does not involve the frontiers of science and molecular biology. It entails development of the vision and willingness to address certain persistent social realities.”

In that spirit, we may want to ask whether, in this time of unprecedented social and economic inequality, investors and governments are getting hyped into funding marginally relevant treatments for rare conditions rather than allocating adequate funds to tackle problems that systemically impact health status in America: lack of nutrition, lack of housing, lack of basic healthcare access.

We may also reasonably inquire whether $120 million will buy CRISPR researchers and the media a pass on considering the serious ethical, social, and political concerns that CRISPR poses.

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