Whilst European politicians engage in the brinkmanship of what is becoming known as the ‘vaccine wars’, another biotech rivalry is quietly brewing on both sides of the Atlantic. Admittedly the latter is mostly a friendly and ultimately an optimistic rivalry, but it could reshape the future of humanity according to technologist and biotech investor Tej Kohli.
Kohli claims in his #TejTalks blog that when historians look back at 2020 and 2021, it won’t be the coronavirus crisis or the vaccine ‘wars’ that will claim their interest, but the award in October 2020 of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to two female scientists for their work on the technology of genome editing. Their ‘CRISPR-Cas9’ discovery – also known as ‘genetic scissors’ – enables scientists to make precise changes to the DNA within living cells.
CRISPR allows scientists to ‘rewrite’ the code of life in revolutionary ways. It has already enabled countless new discoveries in research, medicine, and cancer therapies; and the first ‘real world’ therapeutic application will likely be to treat sickle cell anaemia. CRISPR is a result of work conducted by French professor Emmanuelle Charpentier at the University of Vienna and the Umeå Centre for Microbial Research in Sweden; and by American biochemist Jennifer Doudna at the University of California at Berkeley.
Charpentier and Doudna now each head up organizations on either side of the Atlantic that are licencing the use and application of CRISPR. What will be interesting is how CRISPR manifests itself commercially on either side of the pond – and which side will dominate?
Europe and the United Kingdom have a poor track record when it comes to monetising scientific innovations compared to the USA. A 2013 report titled ‘Bridging the Valley of Death: Improving the Commercialisation of Research’ highlighted the ‘valley of death’ in the UK in particular, which prevents the progress of science from the laboratory to the point where it provides the basis of a commercially successful business or product.
British science journalist Michael Mosley also wrote of the UK that: “Perhaps because we are used to getting there first, we constantly fail to commercialise British inventions. Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the worldwide web, is rightly applauded for giving his invention to the world – yet on another level it would have been nice if he could have benefited from his work in the way Google’s founders have done.”
To extrapolate Mosley’s statement a little further, there can be no doubt that is it the USA, not the UK and Europe, that has been most successful at monetising the Internet. Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google and Uber are just some of the juggernaut companies that have emerged in the USA because of the advent of the Internet. By comparison Europe can only boast a small number of Unicorn companies, and none of equivalent stature.
Will this also be what happens with CRISPR? Other recent advances that allow us to reengineer human cells and DNA, such as CAR T-cell therapies, are already overwhelmingly manifest primarily in the USA, at least when it comes to their stock market listings. It would be all too easy for CRISPR to go the same way. This would be a big missed opportunity for Europe. Much like the Internet, CRISPR is a platform technology upon which myriad applications and treatments will eventually be built. Europe should aspire to lead it.