The ability to cut DNA sequences promises treatments for cancer, sickle cell anaemia and muscular dystrophy. And it might give you an instant six-pack. The Space Race pitted Russia and the US against each other to be first on the Moon. Now there’s a new technological competition: between America and China over gene editing.
The prizes are immense. Researchers in the US, Europe and China are closing in on practical techniques to cure a legion of diseases. They could treat cancer, muscular dystrophy, HIV and some forms of blindness – all thanks to a new gene editing tool that has revolutionised biomedical research. The new technique is CRISPR and it has rapidly relegated other systems to second place. “In the future, I don’t think any new genome editing therapies will be developed except with CRISPR,” says MIT biologist Richard Hynes, who also co-chairs a panel from the US National Academy of Sciences looking at the ethics of gene editing.