Robin Lovell-Badge is a Head of the Laboratory of Stem Cell Biology and Developmental Genetics at the Francis Crick Institute, United Kingdom. He is an author of almost 200 publications cited more than 20000 times and is one of the key experts who help society navigate the increasingly complex terrain of the new gene editing technologies.
Lovell-Badge was first thrust into the public limelight in the early 1990s when he co-discovered the Y-chromosome gene that orchestrates male development. He then used this gene to make a genetically female mouse develop as a male. As stem-cell sciences took off at the turn of the century, the British Parliament called upon him for advice in revising the Human Fertilisation and Embryonic Act. Since then he has regularly given scientific counsel in areas of public engagement and policy.
New technology, called CRISPR-Cas9, has given scientists the ability to alter a cell by removing genes, adding genes, or swapping one gene for another. When the first attempts to do this in human embryos happened, a once-fantastical piece of science fiction became an inevitable reality. The technique has made gene editing accurate and efficient enough for hundreds of labs around the world to try their luck. It is being used to change our food plants and other crops, but has even further prospects such as preventing diseases – creating genetically modified humans, which would open a new page in the world as we know it.
Robin Lovell-Badge was elected a member of EMBO in 1993, a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences in 1999, and a fellow of the Royal Society in 2001. He has received the Louis Jeantet Prize for Medicine (1995), the Amory Prize (1996), the Feldberg Foundation Prize (2008), and the Waddington Medal of the British Society for Developmental Biology (2010).
What does CRISPR bring to gene editing that we didn’t have before?
The CRISPR-Cas9 methods are simple to use, quick, precise and very efficient. They make the change in a gene just where you want it. They are also inexpensive and can be used in seemingly any species.
How long do you think it will be before we actually see people who have had genetic “corrections”?
Well I hope it’s not right now, because I think we still need to understand how to use the methods properly. But at the rate things are going in this field, particularly with the CRISPR-Cas9 technology, you can imagine it could start happening within just a few years. I would much rather it happen in a properly regulated way. It certainly should not be just a free-for-all because that would be horrible — that would be crazy.