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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The gene-editing tool CRISPR is moving toward the market, promising better tests, disease cures — and maybe even a woolly mammoth.

The big picture: CRISPR is already a historic scientific achievement, but we're just now entering the moment when it will begin to impact patients and possibly the planet.

Driving the news: The San Francisco-based CRISPR startup Mammoth Biosciences — whose co-founder Jennifer Doudna shared a Nobel Prize for chemistry last year for her role in discovering the gene-editing tool — announced $195 million in funding late last week, valuing it at more than $1 billion.

  • "The fundamental platform we're building at Mammoth is using CRISPR as a toolbox system" for diagnostics and treatments, says Trevor Martin, Mammoth's co-founder and CEO.

How it works: CRISPR — which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats — are bits of genetic code that bacteria have evolved to locate and destroy viruses.

  • Mammoth first focused on using the tool to develop diagnostic tests for diseases by programming CRISPR sequences to seek out a particular stretch of RNA or DNA in a virus.
  • The relative ease of programming CRISPR opens up the possibility of cheap and accurate tests that could diagnose multiple pathogens simultaneously — one reason why the company received funding from the Defense Department in January to develop a point-of-care test that could detect up to 10 pathogens at once, as well as a larger, lab-based test that could detect up to 1,000.
  • Mammoth has also received funding from the NIH to scale up a disposable, handheld COVID-19 test.

What they're saying: Right now with COVID tests, "you have to decide whether you want a highly accurate test that might take a while, or do you want to be really easy and accessible, but not as reliable," says Martin.

  • CRISPR-enabled COVID tests that offer both speed and reliability "are the long-term promise of CRISPR diagnostics," he adds.

Between the lines: The first and most widely known CRISPR enzyme is called Cas9, but Mammoth has also been developing new enzymes like Cas12, Cas13 and Cas14.

  • These enzymes are as little as a third the size of Cas9, which means they can reduce unwanted off-target effects during treatments and can be more easily delivered to the body via viruses or nanoparticles.
  • These new CRISPR enzymes have been patented by Mammoth, which helps them avoid a patent battle like the one the University of California-Berkeley (where Doudna works) and MIT’s Broad Institute fought to determine who owns the rights to the original Cas9.

What to watch: Another new company wants to use gene editing for an even more audacious goal: bringing back an extinct animal.

  • This week the startup Colossal launched with the plan to use CRISPR to add 60-plus genes from the extinct wooly mammoth into the cells of an embryo of an Asian elephant, the mammoth's closest living relative.
  • If Colossal succeeds, it plans to reintroduce the re-engineered mammoths to their original habitat in Siberia, which the company's co-founder, Harvard geneticist and CRISPR pioneer George Church, has argued could help reduce the release of CO2 from the rapidly warming tundra.

The catch: Colossal faces major scientific challenges — including building an artificial womb that can gestate a 200 lb. hybrid mammoth fetus — as well as ethical questions about whether it's humane to bring back and set loose a long-extinct animal.

  • Yes, but: Gene editing could emerge as a powerful tool for conservation by allowing scientists to edit endangered species to better resist pathogens or adapt to a changing climate.

The bottom line: CRISPR is poised to fundamentally change both humans and other species, which means that "we as a society have to actually choose what we want to do," says Martin.

Go deeper

20 hours ago - Health

5 times as many police officers have died from COVID as from guns since pandemic began

Photo: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

COVID-19 is the leading cause of death for police officers even though members of law enforcement were among the first to be eligible to receive the vaccine, CNN reports, citing data from the Officer Down Memorial Page.

Why it matters: Nearly 476 police officers have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic started, compared to the 93 deaths as a result of gunfire in the same time period, according to ODMP and CNN.

Hollywood union reaches deal with studios to avert strike

Photo: AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

A Hollywood workers' union reached a tentative deal with studios, networks and streamers that will guarantee better working conditions, meal breaks and increased wages for low-paid workers, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) announced Saturday night.

Why it matters: The deal, which still needs to be ratified by IATSE members, will avert a nationwide strike by film and television workers that was set to start Monday. It would have been the first strike in the union's 128-year history.

Bill Clinton released from hospital following treatment for non-COVID infection

Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Former President Bill Clinton was discharged from the University of California, Irvine Medical Center on Sunday, nearly a week after he was admitted for a non-COVID-related infection, according to his spokesperson Angel Ureña.

What they're saying: "His fever and white blood cell count are normalized and he will return home to New York to finish his course of antibiotics," wrote Dr. Alpesh Amin, who has been overseeing the team of doctors treating Clinton. "On behalf of everyone at UC Irvine Medical Center, we were honored to have treated him and will continue to monitor his progress."

Worth noting: Clinton had a urinary tract infection that spread to his bloodstream, per CNN.

  • The California-based medical team had been administering IV antibiotics and fluids, and was in constant communication with Clinton's New York team, including his cardiologist, according to the former president's physicians.
  • President Biden spoke by phone with Clinton on Friday to see how he was doing, and the catch-up included a discussion of recent politics.