When Sean Parker was young, he cofounded Napster and changed the way we listen to music. In his twenties, he helped jump-start Facebook and changed the way we interact with each other. Now, at age 38, he’s set on changing something else: the way we treat disease. The Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, which he founded in 2016, has dedicated $250 million toward using new technologies like Crispr to teach the human body to vanquish cancer. Alex Marson is a scientist building the tools to do just that. His research at UC San Francisco and the Parker Institute rejiggers the DNA of T cells—your immune system’s sentinels—to better recognize and attack malignant mutineers. Parker and Marson sat down to talk about Crispr, genome editing, and the most exciting coding language today: DNA. —Megan Molteni
Sean Parker: I first learned about the therapeutic potential of Crispr a few years ago, and back then it really only allowed us to remove a gene or prevent it from functioning. The ability to completely reprogram a cell’s functions seemed like an ambitious, distant possibility.
Alex Marson: Yeah, for the past few years we could only use Crispr to make cuts inside of cells and snip away portions of DNA. But now we have a paste function. We showed in a Nature paper in July that if we mix our Crispr components in just the right recipe, we can zap the T cells with a bit of electricity to send in the genome-editing machinery. Then we can make edits that are about 750 nucleotides long at multiple sites, which starts to give us enough flexibility and real estate to give cells dramatic new functions. We’re now able to paste in a new T cell receptor, which is designed to recognize an antigen found on some cancer cells, giving us T cells that attack only the cells that carry that signal.
Parker: This was total science fiction up until very recently! But because of your breakthrough, we can now get into the source code and fundamentally alter the capabilities of not just T cells but any cell type. When I first started reading wired in the 1990s, one of the big ideas was that nanotechnology was going to cure all diseases with little silicon-based robots circulating in our bloodstream. Twenty years later it turns out those tiny machines are actually cells taken from our own bodies, reprogrammed, and put back in.
Marson: You’re making me realize that what I’m really trying to do in the lab is create tools that make a more flexible programming system for the field more broadly. That’s what Crispr has the potential to offer: to make it easier to write new code in the language of genetics.
Parker: You know, the advice I would give young people today is not to go into computer science; a much more exciting place to be is the world of biology. It’s going through the same kind of transformation right now that occurred in information technology 20 years ago.