UC Berkeley study shows CRISPR’s impact on researchers

a DNA strand
Vcpmartin/Creative Commons
A study co-authored by UC Berkeley researchers reveals how CRISPR technology is altering the way incoming scientists undergo early training and interact with patients. Photo by Vcpmartin under CC BY 2.0

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Highly promising and revolutionary, CRISPR technology has changed the prospects of modern medicine; according to a UC Berkeley study, however, it may also be changing the role of researchers and scientists.

CRISPR is campus professor of molecular biology and biochemistry Jennifer Doudna’s Nobel Prize-winning invention. It allows for somatic cell genome editing, possibly eliminating or reducing certain genetic diseases.

Research indicates CRISPR technology may actually be pulling “bench” scientists toward translational research, according to campus professor of bioethics and medical humanities Jodi Halpern.

Co-authored by Halpern, campus School of Public Health lecturer Sharon O’Hara, former campus postdoctoral scholar Aleksa Owen and campus School of Public Health researchers David Paolo, the recent paper published in the journal Ethics and Human Research details how scientists are perceiving the technology’s transitional promise.

“People who were educated and treated in the culture and ethics of lab science are now entering the public arena and engaging with patients,” Halpern said.

There has been a demand for scientists who have immersed themselves in a culture of public engagement, allowing them to empathize and learn about the patients they’re treating and their experiences, Halpern noted.

According to the study, CRISPR has also had an effect on the distribution of funding amongst the scientific community.

“The move from bench to translational research is, according to our interviews, consciously driven by the need to fund science and the fact that there is more funding in translation and insufficient funding in basic science,” Halpern said in an email.

Industry money now favors biomedical, application-based research over basic experiments, forcing bench scientists to transition away from their traditional training, the study notes.

Scientists find themselves influenced by pharmaceutical and biotech industries’ emphasis on quick profitability, according to the study.

“Some scientists directly tied industry’s increased translational research involvement to industry’s need to generate profit,” the study reads.

Halpern said this transition is not necessarily positive or negative.

Those who are moving to translational work should get more opportunities for genuine public engagement in the early phases of their careers, according to Halpern.

“This is an opportunity to engage scientists in their training on how to work with the public on diseases,” Halpern said. “Scientists themselves would like to have greater understanding of the public’s needs and the public would like to have a greater understanding of what’s being done.”

Contact Jack Hughes at [email protected].