This Scientist Turned CEO Wants to Gene-Edit a Way to Cure Cancer
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she’s set to change medicine, agriculture and biotechnology as we know them.
By Molly Fosco
In a fashionable fitted blazer, Rachel Haurwitz looks the part of a polished executive when she meets me in the largest conference room of her company, Caribou Biosciences. She’s sharp and tactical as she speaks, even though it was just a few years ago that Haurwitz traded her lab coat for a tailored suit and stepped up to lead a staff of 46 as Caribou’s CEO. And while the company’s Berkeley, California, office has the unassuming look of most Bay Area startups — open floor plan with scattered desks, swivel chairs and the mandatory Ping-Pong table — tucked away in back is a bright white laboratory where Haurwitz, 32, and her team are using CRISPR, a first-of-its-kind gene editor, to revolutionize food and medicine.
To date, research on CRISPR has focused on treating disease: Clinical trials in China have used the gene editor to fight cancer cells, labs in the U.S. will soon begin doing the same and there’s hope that it will eventually cure rare genetic diseases like Huntington’s. But Haurwitz believes that CRISPR can and should be mobilized to meet challenges beyond the human health field — to include agriculture and industrial biology — and she built her company around that objective. “Any market with bio-based products will be changed by gene editing,” Haurwitz tells OZY.
One day was pipetting clear liquids from one tube to the other and the next was trying to figure out how to build and grow a company.
Caribou has partnered with DuPont to grow CRISPR-edited waxy corn that is resistant to drought and disease, and it has licensed its technology to Genus, a UK livestock company using CRISPR in animal embryos to breed healthier, heartier pigs and cows. As a platform technology organization, Caribou made it a priority from the outset to partner with companies across multiple industries, including basic research, food and human health, to commercialize CRISPR as a tool. “For this technology to be broadly disseminated, I think it has to be through the commercial infrastructure,” Haurwitz says. “It takes a tremendous amount of money and investment to make it through that regulatory process.”
Haurwitz presents as a seasoned executive, but growing up in Austin, Texas, she was your average science nerd. The daughter of an elementary school teacher mom and an environmental journalist dad, she was born with scientific curiosity in her (unedited) genes. In high school, she once kept 400 planaria (a type of flatworm) in her parents’ dining room and tried to teach them to navigate a maze. Her results were inconclusive. Following her undergraduate years at Harvard, she pursued grad school in molecular and cell biology at UC Berkeley, where she joined Jennifer Doudna’s lab in 2008. “I was the first student in her lab to start studying this thing called CRISPR,” Haurwitz says of the game-changing technology. When Caribou launched three years later, a 25-year-old Haurwitz was tapped to lead — in part, Doudna says, because of her “deep knowledge of the opportunities for gene editing to solve problems in agriculture and health care.”
The transition was quick. “One day was pipetting clear liquids from one tube to the other and the next was trying to figure out how to build and grow a company,” Haurwitz says. Which she’s done, expanding Caribou from a one-person operation to a staff of nearly 50 people. Today, Haurwitz stands out as a bold leader in a male-dominated field. “I like to believe that I and many others are proof positive that twentysomething-year-old women have a role to play in this industry,” she says.
Haurwitz’s former colleague Rodolphe Barrangou, who served as Caribou’s board chairman for three years, thinks her empathy for others is a significant reason for her success. “Rachel really cares about her team,” he says. “She’s a great mentor to women in science.”
Recently, Haurwitz has sharpened Caribou’s focus on medicine. They’re currently developing in-house products aimed at cancer treatment that will target microbes instead of cancer cells. “It’s using CRISPR to modify some of the bugs that live in and on us as a way to solve specific health issues,” Haurwitz explains, unable to reveal more at this early stage of development.
But working with cutting-edge biotechnology comes with an immense set of challenges. UC Berkeley and the University of Vienna are tied up in a legal battle with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard over the patent rights to CRISPR. As the exclusive licensee of Berkeley and Vienna’s intellectual property portfolio on CRISPR, Caribou is responsible for all legal costs associated with the case. “[It] has a direct impact on our organization,” Haurwitz admits, “but I wouldn’t say it impacts the decisions we make in the laboratory.” Last year, the U.S. Patent Trial and Appeal Board ruled that the Broad Institute’s CRISPR patent remains in effect in the US, but the European Patent Office (EPO) recognizes the Berkeley and Vienna patent rights. When asked for comment, the Broad Institute referred to an official statement saying it is “confident” that the EPO will rule in its favor on appeal, believing that consistency with the US will sway the decision.
Despite the legal and logistical complexities of working with genetic technology, Haurwitz intends to put CRISPR-edited produce on grocery store shelves and offer CRISPR treatment options for cancer patients within the next five years. Barrangou thinks that’s possible given Haurwitz’s track record, but he cautions, “Five years in the age of CRISPR is an eternity. Five years ago, nobody knew we would be here right now.”