The gene scissors have now won a Nobel Prize. However, its sensible use is still being fought against in this country

By Sascha Karberg
There is great jubilation over the award of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Berlin. Even German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier sent congratulations to the laureate Emmanuelle Charpentier, founding director of the “Max Planck Research Unit for the Science of Pathogens” on the Charité campus in Mitte. He expressed “great pleasure” and considered the award a “strong indication that excellent science has a good home in Germany.”
But if you look a little closer after all the champagne cheer, you’ll notice, for one thing, that Professor Charpentier wasn’t even doing research in Germany in 2011, when she conducted the crucial experiments that led to the discovery of the “Crispr/Cas9” gene scissors. So it can hardly serve as proof of the excellence of German science. At best, “the politicians, the Max Planck Society and the Charité” can celebrate themselves for having “worked together quickly and without complications” “to win them over to Berlin,” says Detlev Ganten, honorary chairman of the Charité Foundation Board and president of the World Health Summit. This speaks for the fact that Berlin as a science location and the conditions at the Max Planck Society are attractive for excellent researchers such as Charpentier or also this year’s Nobel Prize winner in physics, Reinhard Genzel – and that Germany can certainly keep up with the international recruitment of this excellence.
But what grows out of this excellence? How do Berlin, Germany and Europe use this often expensively purchased knowledge? What added value can be expected from the genetic engineering tool “Crispr/Cas9” in this country? Little, is the answer, because while plant varieties in the U.S. are already being made more resistant to fungal attack or other pests with genetic scissors, the ruling of the European Court of Justice de facto blocks such applications of the technology in the EU. “Ms. Charpentier’s work in particular – genetic modification – is not necessarily the Germans’ favorite topic,” Ganten says. But the potentials are “enormous,” he says; gene scissors can be put to good use in medicine, as well as in agriculture and biotechnology. “If we as a science nation Germany and as a science city Berlin want to be at the forefront, we really have to want to open up to the future – transparently and according to clear rules.” The Nobel Prize is an important stimulus for the debate on the use of new genetic engineering, he said.
But a “debate,” i.e. a respectful, constructive exchange of arguments, has long since ceased to exist in Germany when it comes to “genetic engineering.” Whereas in the climate debate, for example, people like to refer to science and follow its arguments and facts, it is largely ignored in the discussion about the use of gene scissors in plant breeding.
Crispr” can be used to introduce exactly the same pest-resistant genetic mutation into a plant as is present in a wild variant of the plant. That saves years of crossbreeding. “Something like this should be done in Europe at least in model projects,” says Ganten. The general suspicion that genetic engineering methods are per se more risky than other breeding methods is scientifically untenable. But this is how the ECJ classified the gene scissors, as genetic engineering, so that plants modified with them have to undergo a complex and expensive testing procedure. This means that a crop plant that carries a large number of mostly unknown mutations due to irradiation, for example, is de facto considered risk-free, while a plant variety modified with the gene scissors at one location in the genome is classified as high-risk.
Europe’s scientific organizations have pointed out this contradiction in various statements. They are calling for an amendment to European genetic engineering legislation in which it is not the breeding technique used, but the extent of the genetic modification carried out in each case, that should determine whether the plant must be more tightly regulated or whether it can be classified as low-risk. However, nothing has been done yet.
While the use of genetic scissors in “green genetic engineering” is still in a rather poor state, things seem to be progressing smoothly in the area of “red genetic engineering,” i.e. the use of genetic scissors for the treatment of diseases. In fact, Simone Spuler, for example, who is developing gene therapies against muscular atrophy at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin, is receiving support “at all levels” to rapidly translate the molecular tool into helpful and curative therapies. However, these are still very isolated ventures by dedicated research groups. What is still lacking in Germany is a functioning investment culture in such key biotechnological technologies.
In the USA, on the other hand, investors – there referred to as venture capital, rather than hesitant venture or risk capital – are specifically looking for research projects with the potential to treat previously untreatable diseases. The money would also be available in this country, but it is traditionally put into rather low-risk, and thus also low-innovation, areas of the economy. An industry in which it takes ten years or more for a therapy to reach the market, in which 500 million to one billion U.S. dollars have to be invested for each successfully approved drug – depending on the calculation – and in which on average only one of 100 therapeutic approaches reaches the market in the first clinical test phase, is too tricky for many investors – no matter how tempting the potential returns with the few successful “blockbuster” drugs.
The fact that a few companies in Germany, such as Biontech in Mainz, nevertheless manage to bring original German research to the point of application in humans and to the market is rather the exception that proves the rule. The Mainz-based company, for example, which is now at the forefront of the race for a Covid 19 vaccine, was only able to develop its RNA technology with the help of the family office of the brothers Thomas and Andreas Strüngmann, who invest their fortune from the sale of the former generics manufacturer Hexal specifically in biotech companies. The same applies to Tübingen-based Curevac, which is also among the favorites with an RNA vaccine. Without the steady flow of money from Dietmar Hopp’s investment firm Dievini, the company would long since cease to exist.
But beyond these two “business angel” options, there are few brave people in Germany who put their money into real innovations, even if they are ennobled with the Nobel Prize. One example is RNA interference (RNAi), a method for silencing genes that won an award in 2006. Although German researchers went were left empty-handed, but were certainly involved in essential basic research that was also relevant to applications, for example Thomas Tuschl, who was working at the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen at the time. But the first drug based on RNA interference was brought to market by a Boston company, although there were RNAi companies in Germany as well.
The value of this research, too, is now being exploited on the other side of the Atlantic – and justifiably so, because there, not only were the venture capital firms standing at the ready with lots of money, but also a whole host of drug development experts, a tightly woven network, an innovation machinery. These structures are still lacking in large parts of Germany.
What is not missing are the ideas of researchers. Nor is there a lack of government support for the first steps in development, as there has been time and again in various forms since the “BioRegio” funding program at the turn of the millennium. What this society needs is the courage to overcome its laziness and, with all the money this country earns from the innovations of previous generations, to take up new ideas and consistently bring them to market. “You can’t derive quality from tradition; you have to keep doing something about it,” says Detlev Ganten. This requires confidence that the benefits of new technologies outweigh the risks, if any, and that they can be controlled. Or, as Ganten puts it, “We really have to want it.”
No food without a gene. The more natural the food, the more genes in it. But the fear that genetic modification per se would do harm is hampering progress in plant breeding. F.: P. Pleul/dpa