5 ways CRISPR gene editing is shaping the future of health and food

By Douglas Broom | 3 April 2024
World Economic Forum

(Credit: YouTube / screengrab)
  • CRISPR is a gene editing technique that can help prevent diseases like HIV and cancer, make crops more hardy, and tackle the climate crisis.
  • But there are still concerns around genetic modification, and the use of gene editing in crops is regulated in many countries.
  • The World Economic Forum’s annual Top 10 Emerging Technologies report identified the potential benefits of CRISPR technology back in 2015.

Imagine if scientists could manipulate cells at the molecular level, remove molecules, add them or fuse them together. How could they change the world?

What sounds like science fiction has become scientific fact. In 2020, a molecular gene-editing technology called CRISPR/Cas9 ‘genetic scissors’ was awarded that year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Before this discovery, altering the genes in a cell, plant or organism was time consuming and sometimes impossible.

The CRISPR discovery has opened up a new world of gene manipulation, with applications ranging from disease elimination to developing drought – and insect-resistant crops capable of growing in harsh environments.

Concerns about CRISPR

Although CRISPR has been hailed as a breakthrough, it has also heightened concerns around genetic modification. In 2015, a group of scientists, including Nobel Laureate Professor Jennifer Doudna, one of the pioneers of CRISPR, called for a temporary moratorium on its use in humans.

The use of gene editing in crops is already regulated in many countries, with the European Union imposing restrictions on almost all genetic plant modification. The United States and most other countries only regulate crops where new genetic material has been added.

How CRISPR is positively impacting our food and health

While the debate around gene editing continues, here are five ways that CRISPR is already having an impact – from the state of our health to the food we eat.

1. Diagnosing and preventing diseases

In a world first, researchers at the University of Amsterdam successfully cut out Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) from infected cells using CRISPR. HIV attacks the human immune system and if untreated can lead to AIDS.

It’s important to note this science is currently at the proof-of-concept stage, and there is a long way to go before the technique could be used to completely eradicate diseases like HIV from the human body.

Clinical trials are also underway to use CRISPR gene editing to treat conditions like blindness and diseases like cancer.

Back in January 2022, the US Food and Drug Administration authorized a new high-throughput rapid test for COVID-19 developed using CRISPR which can process thousands of samples in a single day.

Trials have also been conducted of CRISPR-developed treatments which prevent the COVID-19 virus from attacking lung cells. Scientists at Duke University in the US found that the CRISPR treatment also inhibited the immune reaction which causes COVID deaths.

2. Making foods hardier and tastier

Any parent will tell you how hard it can be to persuade children to eat green vegetables and salads. But CRISPR is coming to the rescue, making healthy foods taste better by dialling down the bitterness in many vegetables and enhancing the flavour of fruit.

Gene editing is also being used to create crops capable of growing in harsh conditions to withstand the impact of the climate crisis, and which are resistant to disease, insects and drought.

Scientists from the University of Berkeley and Innovative Genomics Institute have created disease-resistant cacao plants, for example.

3. Improving animal health

Researchers at the Pasteur Institute in Montevideo, Uruguay, have used CRISPR techniques to modify the genes of farm animals to make them more disease-resistant. In one experiment, pigs were rendered immune to respiratory diseases like swine flu.

They also focused on avoiding painful procedures such as the removal of cows’ horns which is done to avoid them harming one another. The scientists introduced a gene mutation found in horn-free Angus cattle to create a hornless breed of Holstein cows.

4. Helping crops tackle the climate crisis

Scientists have already used CRISPR to produce virus-, bacterial- and fungal-resistant crops that can cope with extremes of heat and cold. They’ve also increased the size of rice, wheat and maize grains and produced bigger and better soybeans and brassicas.

Professor David Savage of the University of California believes his team are close to developing varieties of rice and sorghum that will not just survive the climate crisis but actively help tackle it by capturing more carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in their roots.

5. A new treatment for cancer

Personalized treatments for cancer are getting ever closer thanks to CRISPR. A clinical trial, reported in Nature in November 2022, involved using the gene editing technique to train a patient’s immune system T-cells to recognize and attack their particular cancer cells.

By isolating genetic mutations unique to the cancer, scientists were able to programme the T-cells to seek it out. They also used CRISPR gene editing to “toughen up” the T-cells which, they say, are often overwhelmed by cancers.

CRISPR featured in the 2015 version of the World Economic Forum’s Top 10 Emerging Technologies report, and went on to become a Nobel Prize-winning science five years later.

The annual report has identified a number of little-known technologies that have gone on to make a global impact, including messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) vaccines, which became the technology underpinning the development of most COVID-19 vaccines.

The 2023 report features step-change technologies, including AI-enabled healthcare delivery, flexible battery technologies to power wearable medical devices, neural-interfacing flexible circuits and virtual shared spaces for mental health support.

How Gene Editing is Transforming Our World

Could gene-edited crops mean healthier food around the world?

The Genome Editing Era—Fyodor Urnov

CRISPR: What is the future of gene editing? | Start Here

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