Since 2015, biochemist and geneticist Emmanuelle Charpentier has been the director of the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin. (Photo: Hallbauer & Fioretti)
Reading aloud The new CRISPR tool makes it much easier to change the genome of cells - including human ones. One speaks of "genome editing", the editing of the genetic code. Clinical therapies are still far away because the methods do not work reliably enough, but many experts expect rapid technical improvements. The French microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier (47), who is building up a department at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin, co-developed CRISPR and explained in the interview which ethical restrictions and which medical applications she considers useful. From 2013 to 2015, she headed a department at the Helmholtz Center for Infection Research in Braunschweig. Mrs. Charpentier, what did the Max Planck Society offer you to keep you in Germany?

Charpentier: I have been living in Germany for three years and I had no intention of leaving immediately. I could have done that, but the Max Planck Society enabled me to continue my projects with my team in Germany. It also gives me the freedom to choose the topics myself, while the Helmholtz Association conducts more program-oriented research. And last but not least, the funding is generous and allows me to realign an institute in Berlin - with colleagues.

What makes Germany attractive as a location for your work?

Germany has a strong tradition in microbiology and genetics - and you can tell that when you work here. Here you will find well-educated students and doctoral students. There is also competition among the scientists at a good level. And last but not least, fundamental research is being promoted in an international comparison - for example by the German Research Foundation. display

Do you agree with the legal regulations in your field of research?

I mainly work with bacteria and my laboratory is subject to the safety regulations of the protection level BSL-2. That's fine, and I'm used to that. When I moved to Berlin, however, I had to apply for all new registrations, because now another state was responsible. That could perhaps be simplified. But you want to go beyond the ethical questions that arise from CRISPR. This method is useful, for example, to study the biology of plants and the biology of stem cells - and in these areas there are stricter regulations in Germany than in other countries.

You have already referred to these regulations as a competitive disadvantage.

Yes, they could lead to a competitive disadvantage if, for example, the US progresses in research and Germany lags behind. For research purposes one should allow certain genetic manipulations.

What would you like to change?

When talking about CRISPR, it is often about germline interventions that alter a human's genetic make-up before birth. Of course, this should be strictly regulated, because the technology is far from established and therefore dangerous. At the moment I do not know why the cells of human embryos should be manipulated. But somatic cells - that is, the cells from which no human can develop - should be genetically manipulated in order to better understand the function and regulation and also to be able to develop therapies. This is where CRISPR comes in, as it allows you to change your genetic material more easily than before - and you can also make very different interventions. For a method that can be used as differently as CRISPR, you need differentiated rules. For example, the European Oviedo Convention devotes only a few general sentences to the subject. These rules should now be specified.

Would you allow interference with the germ line if in the future all security concerns were resolved?

Even then, I would have difficulties with it. One would have to ask: what for? In my view, one can only change the human genome in order to cure a disease. This does not mean that you have to change the genome of the germline.

There are also ethicists who basically argue against intervening in the germ line because no one has the right to change the gene pool of humanity.

I also think that one should primarily develop gene therapies for somatic cells in sick children and adults without interfering with the germline. Ethical questions are already being asked: if the genetic material is examined during artificial insemination and embryos are sorted out. In some cases preimplantation genetic diagnosis is allowed in Germany and should also be used very restrictively in my opinion. It is also important here that the focus is on the treatment of diseases.

Her colleague Jennifer Doudna reports that she barely knew the ethical discussions about genetically manipulated plants, animals and humans that struck her when CRISPR was discovered. She was finally a biochemist. How did you experience the time since the discovery?

I have always worked genetically in research. And although I do research with bacteria, changing genes means doing it responsibly and within the law. One knows the risks of genetic tools. When cloning became possible, genetic techniques were questioned and CRISPR now raises these questions again. Personally, I'm of course excited about the new CRISPR laboratory techniques that greatly support cell biology and biomedical research.

What reactions do you receive from the public?

I only get a few critical letters. Above all, I am writing to patients with genetic diseases who inquire about the therapeutic possibilities of CRISPR. This shows me that they are following developments in science closely.

Do some patients also have too many hopes?

Some maybe already. Therefore, I always express caution on my own, because I am not a doctor and because it will be years before the first clinical trials with CRISPR therapies.

The abuse potential also depends on how easy it is to use CRISPR. Can you do that without studying? And what kind of laboratory would people with criminal intentions need?

You already need a well-equipped laboratory, as is usual at universities. It always depends on which experiments you want to use CRISPR techniques. Depending on the organism, cell cultures and bacteria require appropriate laboratory conditions in order to be successfully cultivated. Of course it is criminal to operate a laboratory without following the legal regulations. But you do not have to study to break rules and laws and this is not just CRISPR techniques.

The conversation was conducted by Alexander M der.

A portrait of the microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier and an interview with today's Chairman of the German Ethics Council, Peter Dabrock, on "Genome Editing" can be found in bild der wissenschaft 10/2015. - Alexander M der
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