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US (NC): NCBiotech Forum probes gene editing opportunities, challenges

Gene editing, due to new tools such as CRISPR, poses unprecedented business and research opportunities, but also scientific, legal, and regulatory challenges.

Scientists, lawyers, and regulators examined the potential and the uncertainties for agricultural applications of gene editing at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center's seventh annual Biotech Roundtable.

Held in conjunction with the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) Annual Board Meeting, and hosted this year by the American Agricultural Law Association (AALA) and NCBiotech, the day-long roundtable considered a wide range of gene editing topics.

In a 2015 video, Rodolphe Barangou, Ph.D., associate professor of food science at North Carolina State University, said the gene editing tool CRISPR, a molecular scalpel derived from the immune system of bacteria, “can play a really big role in agricultural biotech and make a big difference here in the Research Triangle.”

Barangou, recognized as a leading figure in gene editing, and CRISPR in particular, pointed out its advantages.

“It is programmable, specific, transferable, efficient, precise, quick and affordable,” he said.

Courtesy of NCSU

Incredibly fast adoption rate
Because of those advantages, he added, “It is being adopted at a very fast rate and it is one of the hottest topics in science.” And that, other speakers noted, has only increased in the two years since he originally gave his talk.

From a business standpoint, it has been “unprecedented in many ways,” Barangou said in the video. Commercial products began emerging six months after the CRISPR technology was discovered. It interests companies of all sizes, from startups to mid-sized firms and Fortune 500 companies. Venture capitalists are investing significant amounts in companies using CRISPR. “You seldom see interest with all of those getting into the game at the same time,” he said.

The waxy corn story
Wendy Srnic, Ph.D., research director, maize product development at DuPont Pioneer, one of the first companies to commercialize the CRISPR technology, described how the company used it to slash the time it takes to breed waxy corn.

Waxy corn, which has 97 percent corn starch vs. 75 percent in other varieties of corn, is used in making a variety of industrial products such as paste, textiles, and paper, as well as in food. It originally occurred via a natural mutation.

Making waxy corn via conventional breeding methods takes roughly eight years, while the CRISPR-improved version requires only five years to get to market.

Waxy corn is considered an important test case in the regulatory arena, because the U.S. government said it would not attempt to regulate CRISPR-developed waxy corn, which does not add foreign genes to the product.

Srnic noted that the recently merged conglomerate now known as DowDuPont is actively seeking partners in its gene editing work. “We need to collaborate in this space. We’re looking to partner with small companies and innovation leaders.”

Agreement reached for commercial ag R&D
Earlier this month, DuPont Pioneer teamed with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard on an agreement to jointly provide non-exclusive licenses to foundational CRISPR-Cas9 intellectual property under their respective control for use in commercial agricultural research and product development.

That means CRISPR-Cas9 technology will be freely available to universities and nonprofit organizations for academic research.

Srnic also discussed regulatory policy regarding CRISPR-related products. “Regulatory policy should be science-based,” she said, a sentiment others would echo throughout the day. “If something is indistinguishable from a regularly bred product, as is the case with the DuPont waxy corn, it shouldn’t be regulated.”

She added, however, that regulatory processes are in flux in many countries.

She also said there is a “social license” aspect to consider regarding gene editing. “We intend to be open and transparent on how we intend to use it. We need that social license to have confidence in this area. It’s really just advanced breeding. We have to consider word choice when we talk about it. If something looks like a corn plant and smells like a corn plant, let’s call it that.”

There is a “vast potential for a wide array of applications of the technology,” she said, including combating diseases and developing insect resistance in citrus trees and other fruits and vegetables. It’s a tool to solve problems.”

Source: North Carolina Biotech Center (Allan Maurer)
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