CRISPR pioneer Doudna foresees world of woolly mammoths and unicorns

If there was one misstep that doomed the long and bitter fight by the University of California to wrest key CRISPR patents from the Broad Institute, it was star UC Berkeley scientist Jennifer Doudna’s habit of being scientifically cautious, realistic, and averse to overpromising.

A biochemist who co-led a breakthrough 2012 study of CRISPR-Cas9, Doudna repeatedly emphasized in interviews the challenges of repurposing the molecular system, which bacteria use to fend off viruses, to edit human genomes. The U.S. patent office, in a February ruling that let the Broad keep its CRISPR patents (for now), relied heavily on those statements — “We weren’t sure if CRISPR/Cas9 would work in … animal cells,” for example — to conclude that when scientists at the Broad CRISPR’d human cells in 2013, it was a non-obvious advance and therefore deserving of patents.

So it’s striking that the careful, measured Doudna who said CRISPR’ing human cells and thereby curing devastating diseases would be a challenge is hardly in evidence in “A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution,” the new book she co-authored with her former student Samuel Sternberg. It goes on sale Tuesday.