Dr Monika Paule is an Associate Professor at Vilnius Tech University. She is also the CEO and co-founder of two companies, one gene editing company called CasZyme and one edtech company called Paulai Tech, which develops a platform for kids’ education on STEM-related activities. Paule also recently founded a ‘Women in Biotech’ initiative in her hometown, Lithuania.
Please note the transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
FLG: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the latest A Spotlight On interview. Today, we’re going to be talking about all things CRISPR and some of the more unusual applications where this will hopefully help society in the future. So, Monika, if you could just introduce yourself and tell everyone a little bit about what you do as well.
Monika: Hello, everyone. I’m Dr. Monika Paule, CEO and co-founder of the company CasZyme, a gene editing company working with CRISPR-Cas technology.
FLG: Although everyone probably watching this knows what CRISPR is, I think it would be good to give everyone a little bit of an overview about what CRISPR is.
Monika: I’m sure that most of the people listening to this knows what CRISPR is, and what great technology it is for genome editing. I would describe CRISPR as a real breakthrough technology, which can impact society in a variety of ways – from humans to agriculture, to also all the industrial applications. This breakthrough in gene editing, that happened almost 10 years ago, can bring about change not only from a scientific perspective but also from real commercial and social perspectives.
FLG: Compared to when it was first discovered, how do you think that the scientific community’s views and opinions have changed?
Monika: Well, I would say that as with all new things at the beginning, society was scared. But also, some people were very excited and maybe too excited. I guess now we have much more of an understanding about how CRISPR can offer a lot of new solutions as I mentioned in health, diagnostics and agriculture and all these fields. However, it will take time, and we really need to work on further finding those best solutions, the most effective solutions, the most cost-effective solutions. The price of CRISPR is still one of the things that comes up, or any kind of side effect or all the regulatory issues that still are in the way of the development of this technology. Our understanding is evolving, society is getting more and more familiar with it, and we have to keep on working on that. Just several weeks ago on a bus I saw a sticker with these DNA scissors and a QR code for people to scan to learn what CRISPR is. So that is the real impact and education of this.
FLG: What impact do you think it’s had on attitudes within the research community?
Monika: Well, I think the research community understand that it’s a technology that still needs a lot of development but also has a lot of potential in different fields. A lot of researchers work on this, so the competition is tough. But at the same time, this competition is very much based on collaboration, because it’s still quite a close community and everybody knows everybody and are watching quite closely at what others are doing. There is competition, but at the same time, there is collaboration that is actually moving the research further. So, in general, it is changing how the research is done, and how effectively and how fast.
FLG: What potential does CRISPR gene-editing technologies have for enhancing human health?
Monika: In human health, the application areas are so various. It’s obvious that most of the current breakthroughs are made within applications which are, to some extent, simple in form, like vision treatment or some genetic diseases, which are quite particular, or the treatment of various cancer forms and other neurodegenerative diseases and even applications for infectious diseases. When we discussed the applications in human health six or seven years ago, there were not so many indications where it could be applied. But with the collaboration in other fields of science, and doctors and health professionals it really broadened. The other field in health is diagnostics. CRISPR’s application in diagnostics is also unique. We can diagnose many things and apply CRISPR within different devices. The industry is growing and will allow us to bring CRISPR to the market way quicker than in personalised medicine and human therapeutics.
FLG: How have our capabilities evolved since CRISPR was first discovered? How far have we come in our ability to refine this technology?
Monika: Well, I think we have come quite far. The CRISPR that started from Cas9, now we have all types of CRISPR – all kinds of letters and numbers – and it’s still evolving. We realised that there are different types of Cas proteins which can be applied for different applications and industries. It’s still ongoing, determining which types are most applicable for what specialisations and then developing Cas proteins in specific areas. But also, we have been overcoming off-target effects (cutting in the wrong place), we are also overcoming other issues, like delivery of CRISPR, and so on. So, we have come really far. But I still think that it’s the beginning of the path. I mean we’re just now realising that this technology has much wider applications. We need to just integrate it with other solutions, other technologies, and then it will have an even bigger impact.
FLG: What are some of the other technologies that you’re suggesting?
Monika: I think that bioinformatics will allow us to select, characterise and do other things with CRISPR in an easier, faster and cheaper form. I also see a lot of potential in matching CRISPR with different devices. Because it’s how we can diagnose and even treat some of the issues. That’s also the part where integration brings a lot of added value. And, of course, all kinds of specific delivery mechanisms if we talk about human health, or even plant health, and all things which help to apply CRISPR in general.
FLG: What ways do you think CRISPR could potentially be being overhyped? How do you think we can ensure we manage expectations?
Monika: I think the biggest mismatch in expectations is when people are really sick with certain genetic diseases, and they know that CRISPR is already being applied in this field at the research stage. They somehow believe that they can come to the lab and get cured, but that’s not the case. We still need all development and clinical trials. These expectations are sometimes really mismatched by the public. Some say, ‘You are doing so much research and so much money is invested, but why can we still not get it?’ The other thing is that CRISPR should be available for everybody. However, it takes time to make the technology cost effective so that it can actually be applied for everyone. But this understanding of time is still a mismatch with society’s expectations to some extent.
FLG: Aside from human health, one of them more interesting and increasingly important applications of CRISPR is surrounding human impact on climate. Would you be able to discuss how CRISPR may be applied in this area?
Monika: The areas of climate change and the reasons why we have this situation are so complex. However, there are certain areas where CRISPR can be applied. CRISPR can be applied to plants. We see a lot of impact on the climate because of transportation and logistics, because we want to consume certain food products that are grown somewhere very far away, or we can’t grow close effectively. So, we can apply CRISPR to save certain plants species that we had historically in our region. If we can make those species less vulnerable or sick, then we can actually have much more of the production close to us and solve this logistical problem. Also, there are possibilities to apply CRISPR for saving certain animal species that we had historically. So, there are a lot of applications and also enhancement, for example, the use of organic fertilisers and so on. These little pieces can add up to have a very sustainable approach, which can actually have a big impact on climate change.
FLG: I know there are projects, for example, the Woolly Mammoth Revival Project. But are there any specific examples of where CRISPR is being applied that are more practical and will likely have an impact in the near future?
Monika: As I said, it’s for the plants, and for developing of certain plant species that can grow more effectively by all means, including what is required in certain areas. In this case, we can actually make a very big impact, and it’s already being actively done.
FLG: What is hindering CRISPR being applied in these areas?
Monika: Well, the same as with human health, everything needs time. Also, public perception. The public is still mixing gene editing with gene modification. We even have this joke that something is unhealthy and shouldn’t be used because it has genes. So, it’s a joke that we use because the perception by some of the public is that anything that has the word genes in it, is something wrong. So, it is really the lack of education. But at the same time, we need to understand that all applications need investments, and even if the companies are investing in that they need to see the outcome and they need to see business out of that, but also have in mind the social impact and so on. So, we cannot do all these things at once because a lot of things are already happening. I would give us as a society an additional 5-10 years and the impact will be way broader and deeper.
FLG: I think this association with GMOs still has a big impact on societal perceptions. How can we ensure that we educate the public about what CRISPR is and its potential applications?
Monika: Well, the education should come from the expert level. I very much believe that scientists and researchers should engage in that. However, it’s always not enough because the more society gets an interest in a topic, the more we need to talk about them. Also, to educate kids, that’s very important. Because if people grow from a young age with an understanding about technologies, with this open mind that these new technologies are good, and we have to develop and use them in the correct way, then that really brings the change. I come from Lithuania, and as I said, we already have a lot of dissemination about CRISPR even on public transport, and we have a beautiful DNA sculpture quite close to where I am now. It’s very popular among young kids, and they play there and ask their parents what it is, and the parents read what’s written there. And they all learn about CRISPR. So that’s very important. We really have to share the reasons why CRISPR is important and why new technologies are important. But that also needs time.
FLG: The more CRISPR gets translated the wider impact it will have on society. How can we ensure the public are involved in discussions regarding CRISPR and gene editing technologies?
Monika: The main role here is for the government and non-governmental organisations. Because the research community, they cannot do it all. Their job is first to do experiments, to bring new ideas and to develop them. Society wants to understand what is going on, and what would be the benefit. However, all these regulations and boundaries have to be part of the government’s responsibility. Because there are always people who want to push boundaries, obviously, businesses are very often pushing boundaries. But we must have those regulations, we have to set the rules and to set the limits. Of course, it’s hard to set the same limits all around the world. But still, if the critical mass understands where those boundaries are, then we really can keep those boundaries in place as much as possible all around the world. And when we have the boundaries, and it’s also easier to answer the questions for society. So, what can I do with this technology? How can I use it? And what if I use it for the wrong reasons? Well, then you can say ‘No, you cannot do that, because there are limits’. I feel that there has to be even more involvement from governments and from the non-governmental organisations, and not to look only on some specific legislation, but on this philosophical approach. So, how we deal with these technologies and how we set up boundaries in our society. That’s very important, and that still needs to be done much more intensively.
FLG: CRISPR is heavily regulated which differs between applications and also across the globe. What impact do you think this has on the translation of CRISPR?
Monika: Well, of course, if certain geographical areas are more favourable for gene editing applications than others, then obviously, businesses will move where there are less boundaries. That’s also I think the essence of the capitalism. But we still need to seek that those boundaries and those regulations are as similar as possible. But that’s a very hard agreement to make among governments and among the regions. If there are differences, then obviously, some areas will benefit more, and some will, to some extent, lose. So that’s how it always happens. Both businesses and consumers go where they can either do business or consume how they want. So that’s the same for CRISPR, it’s the same for many, many other industries and technologies.
FLG: You’re the CEO and co-founder of CasZyme. Would you be able to just tell everyone a little bit about what that is and what made you set this company up as well?
Monika: CasZyme, as I mentioned at the beginning, is a company working in the gene editing field and on the development of CRISPR-Cas technology. We founded CasZyme in 2017, and our main founder is Professor Virginijus Šikšnys, one of the pioneers in the CRISPR field and a very well recognised researcher. In CasZyme, we develop the technology and look for Cas proteins, which can be applied for very different industries, that our clients and partners in these different industrial areas then could use our CasZyme Cas proteins to develop final products using the CRISPR technology. It varies from agriculture, research reagents, to human therapeutics, diagnostics, industrial biotech, and so on. Our goal is to actually enable those companies to use gene editing solutions for the development of their business and new products.
FLG: What does the CRISPR landscape look like in Lithuania? What are some of the challenges?
Monika: Well, a part of CasZyme where we work with CRISPR is the Vilnius University Life Sciences Centre, and a very big laboratory of Professor Šikšnys, which works on CRISPR development for the various angles. Many well-known researchers work there, and this area is very well recognised here in Lithuania. Lithuania is on the CRISPR map as an important player, contributing greatly to the technology development and doing even more to further it. Before COVID, all the CRISPR community was here in Vilnius!
I think that the challenges are the same for everybody else, it’s more of the opportunities that we have here. We have really educated students and researchers and this favourable attitude in society because CRISPR is the technology that we are proud of. It’s the people that we are proud of, who worked with CRISPR from the very beginning. Lithuania is a great place to be. We now have a lot of researchers and postdocs coming from all around the world to do their research here in Vilnius, Lithuania.
FLG: What do you think the future of CRISPR will look like?
Monika: A bright future ahead! Every future has its challenges, that’s for sure. But if everybody is on board, and by everybody, I mean, the research community, businesses, governments, the non-governmental sector and society. If we are all on board to have the best impact from this technology, then the future will be bright. We will use it in the best way that is possible and overcome all the challenges.
FLG: Sounds good. I hope it’s bright. Thank you so much for joining me today, Monika. It’s been really good. I’m excited to see how this field evolves. Since its discovery so much has happened, and I feel like it’s going to continue to grow and get better as well. So, thank you so much.
Monika: Thank you very much.