The contentious gene editing field gets a tech upgrade. What now?

Broad Institute's Feng Zhang

Back when the patent war was brewing over CRISPR/Cas9, the Broad Institute's Feng Zhang made it clear that he believed the big innovations in gene editing still lay ahead. And in the last few days he set out to prove he was right, pointing to an alternative to Cas9 that could wind up serving as a much better tool to use to perform surgery on a gene.

The synthetic biologist, whose patents are included in the foundation IP at Editas, one of the biotechs pioneering gene editing, believes that a protein called Cpf1 could be used to do something that Cas9 doesn't do well: surgically replacing one DNA sequence with another.

Cas9 has proved an effective cutting tool, something that scores of labs around the world have been playing with as they look to do everything from editing out diseases to retooling human embryos. Now they'll have the chance to play with a new editing instrument as scientists look to take the field one more step forward.

Cpf1 is better in part because it's smaller than Cas9, a key consideration when you're looking to get into a cell. Zhang also tells Nature that the new instrument also creates a "sticky" end that is easier to work with than the blunt ends associated with Cas9.

"The sticky ends carry information that can direct the insertion of the DNA," Zhang tells Nature. "It makes the insertion much more controllable."

In recent interviews with FierceBiotech, executives for Editas' rivals--Intellia and CRISPR Therapeutics--didn't appear too alarmed by the idea of Zhang's new work. CRISPR Therapeutics is happy to be working with Cas9, which has been the subject of hundreds of papers and has been readily seized by investigators who appreciate how simple it is to work with. Intellia's team believes that everyone can roll with any new tech that comes along, with no reason to be religious about any single approach.

Both Intellia and CRISPR Therapeutics were founded with IP developed by Berkeley's Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuele Charpentier, two pioneers in the field who have been pressing a patent fight over Zhang's work. Now they have something else to think about as well.

- here's the story from Nature