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Panel discussion

The two faces of CRISPR-Cas9

München, 07/01/2016

At LMU‘s Center for Advanced Studies, experts consider the opportunities opened up by, and the risks associated with, a revolutionary methodology that enables genes and genomes to be modified with unprecedented ease and precision

cas_cutting_260The technique is captivatingly simple and highly effective – and it has re-ignited debates on the hopes raised by, and the attendant hazards of, genetic engineering: Some years ago, microbiologists discovered that some species of bacteria store a record of their encounters with viruses at a specially configured site (CRISPR) in their genomes, which permits them to recognize and destroy viral DNA in the event of reinfection. When the mechanisms underlying its operation became clear, biologists realized that the system provided a means of editing genomes with greater precision than ever before. For this bacterial immune system essentially consists of a protein (Cas9) that can cut DNA and an RNA molecule (derived from the CRISPR site) that guides the enzyme to the specific site to be snipped. This combination of molecular components can therefore be used to produce precisely targeted double-stranded breaks in DNA, which in turn enables site-specific gene editing of even the most complex genomes. The technique raises the art of genetic engineering onto a new plane, and it opens the door to the modification of the human genome, in somatic cells and – in principle – also in the germline.

At a conference held in Washington DC in late 2015, experts in a variety of disciplines discussed the pros and cons of human gene editing. The conference was organized by the National Science Academies of the US and China, together with the US National Academy of Medicine. More recently, the German Ethics Council (Deutsche Ethikrat) took up the topic at a meeting held in Berlin. At both venues, the debate focused on an old question, which has suddenly taken on a renewed urgency: Is it ethically permissible and, if so, under what circumstances and to what extent, to modify individual human genomes?

The Center for Advanced Studies (CAS) at LMU has also included the new gene-editing method in its Cutting-Edge Series on “Challenges for the Sciences”. On Tuesday, July 5th, 2016 at 6.30 PM, the following distinguished experts will meet at CAS (Seestrasse 13) to describe the technology and discuss the issues it raises:
Microbiologist Prof. Dr. Bärbel Friedrich, a former Vice-President of the National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, and currently Scientific Director of the Alfried Krupp Institute of Advanced Studies in GreifswaldDr. Patrick Hsu, Staff Member of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, who helped develop the CRISPR/Cas9 method.
The discussion will be chaired by Prof. Dr. Ernst Ludwig Winnacker, Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry at LMU, a former President of the German Research Society (DFG) and Secretary-General of the International Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP). Winnacker was a prominent protagonists in an earlier phase of the debate on the uses of gene technology in Germany in the 1980s, and was a member of the committee that organized the recent meeting on Gene Editing in Washington.

The CAS event is open to the public, but advance registration is required. Please register by sending an e-mail to: info@cas.lmu.de