Commercialization of CRISPR systems was still years away, and the technology had limitations. It was better at
screening, cutting, and rewriting rather
than inserting DNA. 4 And only recently
have medical centers and companies
applied to start CRISPR-related clinical
trials. There were also alternative technologies with different strengths and
weaknesses. In particular, TALEN (
Transcription Activator-Like Effector Nucleases), another gene-cutting enzyme tool,
was more precise than CRISPR and more
scalable for some non-laboratory applications, though it was more difficult to
use. 6 In general, CRISPR was in the lead,
with several universities and research
centers, startup companies, and established firms actively publishing papers,
applying for patents, and sharing their
tools and depositories of genetic components. Most researchers were also focusing on CRISPR-Cas9, a specific protein
that used RNA to edit DNA sequences.
One concern is that the business
models of biotech startups and pharmaceutical companies depended on patent monopolies, making the industry
ultra-competitive and locking applied
research into protected silos. The result
was potentially a “zero-sum game” mentality. This contrasted to the more cooperative (but still highly competitive)
spirit of “growing the pie” together that
we generally see with basic science and
which we saw in the early days of the personal computer, Internet applications,
and even smartphone platforms such
as Google’s Android. Of course, CRISPR
scientists openly shared and published
their basic research. 7 And though the
U.S. Patent Office already has granted
hundreds of patents related to CRISPR,
patent holders usually offered free licenses to academic researchers, even
those still under litigation.
Ethical and social issues might hin-
der widespread use of gene editing.
The controversies centered on how
much genetic engineering should we,
as a society, allow? Experts already dis-
agreed about the safety of genetically
altered plants and animals that con-
tributed to the human food supply. 13
Scientists can deploy similar technol-
ogy to change human embryos and
cells, such as to treat genetic diseases
or potential disabilities. But should we
allow parents to edit their children’s
genes, such as to select for blue versus
brown eyes, or a higher IQ? 5
In sum, platform dynamics were influencing areas outside of information
technology. It was not so clear, though,
how to use the power of the platform
wisely and safely, and what types of
government monitoring and self-reg-ulation were most appropriate. These
issues were likely to become fierce
topics of debate as CRISPR and other
gene-editing technologies evolved into
widely used platforms for medical,
food, and other applications.
1. Al Idrus, A. Feng Zhang and David Liu’s base-editing
CRISPR startup officially launches with $87 million.
FierceBiotech.com, (May 14, 2018).
2. Boettcher, M. and McManus, M. T. Choosing the right tool
for the job: RNAi, TALEN, or CRISPR. Molecular Cell 58,
4 (May 21, 2015), 575–585; https://bit.ly/2DOHZB5.
3. CRISPR company cofounded by Jennifer Doudna
comes out of stealth mode. Genome Web (Apr. 26,
4. Cyranoski, D. CRISPR alternative doubted. Nature
(Aug. 11, 2016), 136–137.
5. Hayden, E.C. Should you edit your children’s genes?
Nature (Feb. 23, 2016).
6. Labiotech Editorial Team. The most important battle
in gene editing: CRISPR versus TALEN (Mar. 13,
2018); https://bit.ly/2 TwHLmC.
7. Lander, E. The heroes of CRISPR. Cell (Jan. 14, 2016).
8. McKinsey & Company. Realizing the potential of
CRISPR. (Jan. 2017); https://mck.co/2Bl2MK0
9. Molteni, M. A new startup wants to use CRISPR to
diagnose disease. Wired (Apr. 26, 2018).
10. Specter, M. How the DNA revolution is changing us.
National Geographic (Aug. 2016).
11. Vayas, K. New CRISPR-based platform could soon
diagnose diseases from the comfort of your home.
Science (Apr. 29, 2018).
12. Zimmer, C. Breakthrough DNA editor born of bacteria.
Quanta Magazine (Feb. 6, 2015.
13. Zimmer, C. What is a genetically modified crop? A
European ruling sows confusion. The New York Times,
(July 27, 2018)
14. Zyontz, S. Running with (CRISPR) scissors:
Specialized knowledge and tool adoption.
Technological Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and
Strategic Management Research Seminar, MIT Sloan
School of Management (Oct. 22, 2018).
Michael A. Cusumano ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor
at the MIT Sloan School of Management and founding
director of the Tokyo Entrepreneurship and Innovation
Center at Tokyo University of Science.
The author thanks Samantha Zyontz as well as David
Fritsche, Gigi Hirsch, and Pierre Azoulay for their
comments. This column is derived from a forthcoming
book by Michael A. Cusumano, Annabelle Gawer, and
David B. Yoffie, The Business of Platforms: Strategy in
the Age of Digital Competition, Innovation, and Power,
Harper Business, June 2019.
Copyright held by author.
Ethics and social
use of gene editing.
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