Basic research and the origins of CRISPR gene editing

I’ve always done basic research. I’ve never done any research specifically aimed at a clinical goal. I’ve never patented anything I’ve done. None of that motivated my curiosity. I’ve been a medical school professor for over 36 years and was Principal Investigator on three NIH grants and one from the American Cancer Society, and I never once gave a thought to how my findings would cure disease.

There are two types of people in the world: game people and puzzle people. Game people are motivated by winning, by beating others. Puzzle people are motivated by discovering how the pieces of a problem fit together. I’m a puzzle person.

I don’t have any personal insight into the motivations of the people who discovered CRISPR, but I do know that it first existed as a puzzle of immune memory in bacteria. How does a bacterial cell remember that it was once infected by a virus and use that memory to defeat subsequent infections. That sort of research-for-the-sake-of-curiosity came in for ridicule by Sen. William Proxmire, who annually assigned “The Golden Fleece Award” to taxpayer-funded projects he deemed frivolous.

The reason to fund basic research is that we never know how the insights gained could prove transformative in a different context. The discovery of restriction enzymes was, like CRISPR, driven by trying to understand bacterial immunity, and these enzymes became sine qua non to recombinant DNA technology. Few basic science discoveries will find transformative practical applications like restriction enzymes, CRISPR or PCR, but as any VC will tell you, a single success pays for many failures.