[caption id="attachment_235703" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Natalia Rivera-Torres is just one of the scientists working with the technology at the Gene Editing Institute to very precisely select where they want to make alterations in a sequence of DNA. | PHOTO BY JIM COARSE/MOONLOOP PHOTOGRAPHY[/caption]
Sarah LaTorre is only 24, but has already tried her hand at DNA sequencing.
The Harrington native is on track to graduate from Wilmington University in the coming spring with her undergraduate degree in biology and move right into a full-time educator position at ChristianaCare’s Gene Editing Institute. The institute was launched in 2015 by Executive Director and Chief Scientific Officer Eric Kmiec and now encompasses a diverse group of scientists and support staff who are working with CRISPR, a gene editing technology that they hope can help develop novel ways of treating terminal diseases like lung cancer.
It’s where a diverse group of scientific and creative minds—a majority of whom identify as women—are collaborating on ways to one day use such complex gene editing technologies to better treat patients, which includes both scientific and educational elements.
“It’s been so inspiring seeing how successful and happy these women are,” LaTorre said. “It’s not only having a great work-life balance, but being able to have pride in the research they’re doing and to be able to collaborate and share that knowledge with one another.”
From Learning Lab alumna to intern to anticipating a more leadership-focused role, LaTorre is looking forward to playing a new role in evolving the institute’s work and outreach.
She is also an emblem of the growing trend of more women working in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields. According to the National Science Foundation, the number of women with STEM jobs increased 31 percent between 2011 and 2021, to 12.3 million people. At ChristianaCare’s Gene Editing Institute, about 80 percent of the lab staff is female.
“Our diversity speaks for itself: We prioritize female leadership,” said Deirdre Hake, director of operations and strategy at ChristianaCare’s Gene Editing Institute. “Dr. Kmiec and ChristianaCare, we really empower our subject-matter experts to shine. If you’re a leader and you’re good at what you’re doing, we’re not going to hold you back.”
[caption id="attachment_235706" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] The leadership at the ChristianaCare Gene Editing Institute prioritizes diversity, and its colleagues say it helps empower all to shine. | PHOTO COURTESY OF JIM COARSE/MOONLOOP PHOTOGRAPHY[/caption]
Using gene editing to cure cancer
In a world with myriad problems—from the need to cure cancer and deadly diseases to the race against climate change and toward renewable energy—gene editing technologies and tools like CRISPR can lead to the development of new kinds of fuels or cells that can help us power more sustainable, efficient and healthier lives.
CRISPR acts like a pair of molecular scissors, allowing gene editing researchers like Principal Investigator Natalia Rivera-Torres, who is just one of the scientists working with the technology at the Gene Editing Institute, to very precisely select where they want to make alterations in a sequence of DNA. The trick is figuring out where exactly to cut.
CRISPR is more precise than older generations of gene editing technologies, which involve using enzymes or proteins to reprogram cells to do whatever they want. Gene editing can lead to a wide variety of biological and chemical fixes. For instance, it could fix the programming of cells that were resistant to chemotherapy treatments among lung cancer patients, therefore providing a partial, gene-editing based treatment for certain cancers.
That’s exactly the kind of CRISPR-centric research that’s been underway at the institute, thanks in part to the work of Rivera-Torres, who is now expanding that gene editing approach to other cancers, specifically cancers of the head, neck and brain. The team hopes their work on NRF2, the mutated gene responsible for the resistance, will make it to clinical trials and, eventually, become part of a therapeutic treatment for actual patients.
Rivera-Torres and others noted that the successes seen here are in large part thanks to the supportive environment that’s been fostered by Kmiec and ChristianaCare from the start. And while women may still be the minority in many STEM fields, the area of genetics, Rivera-Torres said, has often benefited from a heavy female influence: British scientist Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) has been credited as a central figure in understanding the structure of DNA itself. In 2020, two women—Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier—were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering the CRISPR genetic scissors.
ChristianaCare’s support of its staff and leaders also has meant a financial boon of more than $7 million in funding for the Gene Editing Institute since 2020. That includes investing in the expansion of the research group into custom-built laboratory space at the University of Delaware’s STAR Campus.
[caption id="attachment_235705" align="alignleft" width="200"] ChristianaCare's Gene Editing Institute has tapped into a newly-created pipeline to establish women scientists to work to treat diseases. | PHOTO BY JIM COARSE/MOONLOOP PHOTOGRAPHY[/caption]
“I know there’s a new generation of scientists who will take this and make it better, prove this science is worth it and we will be able to break boundaries that we’ve previously set,” said Rivera-Torres. “We’re setting the bar higher.”
‘Demystifying’ gene editing
One of the big challenges with implementing new technologies, especially in the medical field, is sometimes the average person’s apprehension, said both Hake and Rivera-Torres. A “CRISPR in a Box” kit is one tool that can help demystify such a complex technology.
“That’s key to us: Opening doors to the community so folks understand this technology, so it doesn’t feel as abstract,” said Hake, noting that the better understanding can help people embrace or at least be more receptive to new technology-driven treatments, like the novel therapies being explored at the institute today.
That is also why LaTorre, who will soon step into a new leadership position, aims to help students learn how to have confidence in a laboratory environment. The institute’s Gene Editing 360 program launched the Learning Lab in March 2023, a free field-trip-like experience for high school and college students from Delaware and surrounding states to experiment with laboratory settings and the idea of gene editing, in part through a toolkit called “CRISPR in a Box.” The toolkit is now available nationally.
“[The students] get to use real-life science and technology and tools, but in a setting we’ve already developed how the experiment is going to run,” she explained, noting that’s there’s components of lecture, handling equipment how-tos,games and protocol, and, of course, moving (harmless) liquid between micropipettes.
“So far we’ve had multiple wonderful sessions but this upcoming spring we’re very well booked,” LaTorre added.
As of late January 2024, the institute had engaged with 400 students through the new Learning Lab program, reaching students from more than 20 schools across Delaware’s three counties and beyond into Maryland and Pennsylvania. The program is on track to host hundreds more as the Learning Lab expands relationships with other schools across the state and beyond.
Not only does ChristianaCare and the Gene Editing Institute support the creativity of its scientific staff and a healthy work-life balance by offering 12-weeks of paid family leave and more benefits, but it’s also on the forefront of this kind of gene editing research. It’s also the only gene editing program housed at a community-based healthcare system in the world, according to ChristianaCare spokesman Bill Schmitt.
While the team moves toward advanced stages of testing for its gene editing work related to lung cancer work, Rivera-Torres and others are exploring how similar approaches could work for other types of cancer. Fellow Principal Investigator Kelly Banas, a 28-year-old University of Delaware alumna, agreed with colleagues that the collaborative nature of working at the institute has helped provide diverse perspectives, from forensic science to neurology to animal science and more that’s helped drive the success of the institute.
“We are fortunate to be where we’re at, and I hope other organizations can learn a bit from us,” said Banas, noting that the institute’s leader Eric Kmiec has always empowered his fellow scientists and staff members to speak up and have their voices heard. “We can all make a greater impact for the better of the world, and for the patients who may not have hope.”
New research results are expected to be shared in 2024, in part related to the NRF2 gene that’s at the heart of the institute’s work related to lung cancer treatment and chemotherapy-resistant cells, as well as related to new advances in gene editing work on other types of cancer and a potential melanoma treatment.
In October 2022, ChristianaCare also announcedits first commercial biotech start-up, CorriXR Therapeutics, which relies heavily on CRISPR tech as well as a close working relationship with the Gene Editing Institute.
For the institute’s young female leaders like LaTorre, being embraced as a member of a small team making such big advances has helped inspire her to show other young students, especially young women, that they can play active roles on the cutting edge of exciting break-throughs in STEM fields.
“It’s been an amazing experience,” the second-generation college grad said. “I think the message of collaboration and staying connected, that’s what I’m trying to relay to anyone who wants to know what it’s like to be a woman in STEM.”
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