Jennifer Doudna awarded 5-year grant to improve gene-editing technology

Keegan Houser UC Berkeley/Courtesy

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The National Human Genome Research Institute, or NHGRI, awarded a five-year grant to UC Berkeley molecular biology and biochemistry professor Jennifer Doudna to lead the Center for Genome Editing and Recording.

Lu Wang, a program director at NHGRI, said a main aim of the grant is to interrogate and manipulate DNA using a technology called CRISPR-Cas9. This will help researchers understand how genetic information correlates to human characteristics.

“We are in the early stages of our project now,” Melanie Cantarutti, a senior project manager in the Doudna Lab, said in an email, “but work has started and will continue to ramp up.”

In addition to Doudna, scientists from the Innovative Genomics Institute, UC San Francisco, the Broad Institute and Harvard will work for the center, according to Cantarutti.

Cantarutti said in an email that the team submitted its proposal in the spring of 2016 and was approved for the grant earlier this month.

Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute was also awarded about $1.1 million by the NHGRI. The Broad Institute was recently involved in a patent dispute regarding CRISPR. Zhang could not be reached for comment.

According to Kyle Watters, a postdoctoral associate in the Doudna Lab, CRISPR is a defense system used by bacteria. When bacteria is attacked by an infection, it saves the genetic information of the attacker. When it is attacked again, CRISPR uses this information to identify and defend against the infection.

CRISPR-Cas9, a specific type of the CRISPR system, is cheaper and more efficient than previous gene manipulation technology, according to Watters.

“One of the most common uses for this highly specific cutting ability of Cas9 is gene editing,” Watters said in an email, “either changing a gene or shutting it off entirely.”

This technology will enable scientists to better understand biology and improve human health, said Wang. This could lead to applications in the public health field.

According to Watters, a major application of CRISPR-Cas9 is using gene editing to correct genetic diseases, such as sickle cell anemia and Huntington’s disease. CRISPR could also be used to cure viral infections, which currently have few effective treatments besides vaccines.

Despite some early success, there is a long way to go to make sure it is safe to use, according to Watters. While a lot more work is needed before this technology can be used medically, CRISPR has proven to be an excellent research tool for scientists trying to discover and understand biology.

Wang described CRISPR as state-of-the-art technology and added that the group will develop the next generation of cutting-edge technology.

“It will become possible to do genome editing in a more precise way,” Wang said. “That will be greatly enabling for everyone in the field.”

Michael Lee is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @_HyunkyuL.