CRISPRcon 2020 Revisited: The Role of Funders and Philanthropists in Setting the Gene Editing Agenda

Investment in gene editing technologies plays a significant role in the technology’s evolution and its application to issues in health, agriculture, conservation and more. The final panel discussion of CRISPRcon 2020, conducted Oct. 29, focused on investment by exploring the current funding pathways and priorities for applications of gene editing, including who is creating them and what values are being used to evaluate their application and impact.

“Funders and investors have a really big influence on where technologies go. This is just a fact. One can regulate all you want and exert governance in various kinds of ways but if you have a big push through funding—from research and development to fusion—that’s just going to have a big impact on where technologies go and where gene editing will go,” said David Winickoff, head of the Working Party on Bio-, Nano-, and Converging Technology, who moderated the session.

Brantley Browning, senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation highlighted how investments in gene editing research fit into the Gates Foundation’s overarching goals in transforming agriculture to better address concerns around sustainability, poverty alleviation, and ending hunger.

“Now, the role of gene editing. If you look within on-farm investments and what the researchers are telling us, one of the key areas is, for instance, climate resilient crops. Gene editing has a powerful and critical role to play in that but it’s also critically important that on-farm investments such as extension are prioritized and the bigger system in terms of just being able to not only have access to improved seeds, for instance, but access to extension services, agronomic practices, access to functioning markets post-harvest handling, it is a big picture. So, gene editing is absolutely one of those things that has enormous potential…but it’s one tool of many,” said Browning.

Jeremy Ouedraogo, head of the African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD) regional office for West Africa African Biosafety Network of Expertise in Senegal, offered similar thoughts on how his public agency is viewing gene editing as a supplementary tool for African scientists to meet the goals of ending hunger on the continent. However, he emphasizes that these tools need to be handled by local scientists.

“Genome editing and other relevant technologies are coming into compliment. Conventional breeding has done a lot on the continent but we do have areas where we need to up the game and consider different approaches where the conventional approaches have failed and that’s why the African Union considered that emerging technologies coming in should be harnessed by the local scientists. And we are very happy to see that there is a shift of the paradigm in the African countries today,” said Ouedraogo.

Anne Cheever, a program manager for the DARPA Biological Technologies Office, offered her thoughts on the role gene editing technologies will play in the achieving the mission of her agency in the United States. Cheever specifically mentioned that DARPA is prioritizing development in therapeutics and vector control. But similar to thoughts offered by both Browning and Ouedraogo, DARPA sees gene editing as one tool of many it has invested in across multiple programs and the key is finding the right balance that will be most effective.

“Gene editing technology is really a part of the solution space for these kinds of typical public health challenges, but really understanding how these investments fit together, more modelling and more analysis would be needed to identify the kind of optimal mix,” said Cheever.

The theme of accountability has been a common thread throughout all of the discussions of CRISPRcon 2020, and Shahram Seyedin-Noor, founder and general partner of Civilization Ventures, examined concerns over power dynamics and whether a small group of private funders has outsized influence and decision-making ability about the technology and the pathways they take. Seyedin-Noor also addressed the potential gaps in accountability that may be present among private sector investors.

“I think that responsible venture capitalists will tell you, or at least I hope, that responsible VCs will recognize their own shortcomings. And also try not to monopolize the discourse and say ‘we’re the solution to all innovation.’ I just don’t think that’s the case. That’s why we have the Gates Foundations and all these other players,” said Seyedin-Noor.

The panel also took questions from the audience, including how government decisions may limit investment in a technology; market failure in gene editing and agriculture; the role of diversity, equity, and inclusion in public and private investment; societal and social considerations for gene drives; and creating an international dialogue, among other issues. The full discussion is available below.