I recently caught up with Charles A. Gersbach, PhD, a featured keynote speaker at the 2017 International Conference on CRISPR Technologies. Dr. Gersbach is a Rooney Family Associate Professor at Duke University in the Departments of Biomedical Engineering and Orthopaedic Surgery, an investigator in the Duke Center for Genomic and Computational Biology, and director of the Duke Center for Biomolecular and Tissue Engineering.
How would you describe CRISPR to a layperson, and why is this area so important?
First, it’s important for everyone to understand that “CRISPR” itself refers to a naturally occurring system in bacteria that functions as an adaptive immune system by recognizing viral DNA. That natural phenomena has been engineered to work as a gene editing tool, which means it can be used to change the sequence of the DNA at practically any site in the genome in any organism. Moreover, it can also be used to change other properties of the genome, such has how it is packaged and regulated. This is important because manipulating genome sequences and also regulating genes has tremendous potential to benefit humankind through research, biotechnology, and medicine.
What specifically will you be talking about at the CRISPR Conference?
I will likely focus on some of my lab’s recent work that is representative of how the CRISPR technology can be used in diverse contexts. For example, we have used it to correct mutations that cause human disease, focusing on Duchenne muscular dystrophy. We have used it to create advanced animal and cell models of human disease for testing new therapies. And we have used it to manipulate epigenetics — how the genome is regulated — to better understand what defines cell identity and decision making, and how gene misregulation leads to disease.
What message would you like the audience to take away from your presentation and the conference?
I think the important message is the power and the diversity of things that can be done with CRISPR in many different areas, and also the tremendous amount of work that still needs to be done to capitalize on the technology to fully realize that potential.
How do you envision CRISPR-related technologies will advance some of the Grand Challenges in engineering and society (medicine, health informatics, etc.)?
It is hard to encompass the breadth of areas that CRISPR has the potential to influence. It has clearly already transformed research and will likely continue to do so in new ways. While that will certainly benefit human health indirectly, clinical efforts to use CRISPR directly to correct patient mutations that cause genetic disease or enhance cell immunotherapies for cancer are starting now. Gene editing in other organisms, such as bacteria, has tremendous potential for enhancing human health by targeting infections or reshaping the microbiome. Agriculture is another area where CRISPR is already beginning to have a significant impact, where we hope it can be used to feed a growing human population and address environmental needs. And all this is only the beginning.
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Dr. Gersbach’s work has been recognized through awards including the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, the NSF CAREER Award, the Outstanding New Investigator Award from the American Society of Gene and Cell Therapy, the Allen Distinguished Investigator award, and induction as a Fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering. Read more