DARPA Announces $65 Million in Funding to Make CRISPR Gene Editing Safer and More Effective

On Wednesday the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded a $65 million in research funding to seven research teams to improve the safety and accuracy of CRISPR gene editing.

The goal of the program named Safe Genes, is to “to gain a fundamental understanding of how gene editing technologies function; devise means to safely, responsibly, and predictably harness them for beneficial ends; and address potential health and security concerns related to their accidental or intentional misuse.”

Each of the seven teams will be tasked with at least one of three technical objectives:

  • Develop genetic constructs—biomolecular “instructions”—that provide spatial, temporal, and reversible control of genome editors in living systems;
  • Devise new drug-based countermeasures that provide prophylactic and treatment options to limit genome editing in organisms and protect genome integrity in populations of organisms; and
  • Create a capability to eliminate unwanted engineered genes from systems and restore them to genetic baseline states.

Those awarded funding by the program include a Harvard Medical School team led by Prof. George Church, which will use the DARPA funding to develop methods to protect genomes by detecting, preventing, and ultimately reversing mutations that may arise from exposure to radiation. Church and his team plan on creating new computational and molecular tools to enable the development of precise gene editors that can distinguish between highly similar genetic sequences. The team also plans to screen the effectiveness of drugs that inhibit gene editing activity.

Prof. Church believes that gene editing tools that are even more accurate and easier to use than CRISPR are possible in the near future.

Fighting Malaria With Gene Drives 

A group headed up by Amit Choudhary, Ph.D., (Broad Institute/Brigham and Women’s Hospital-Renal Division/Harvard Medical School), will develop ways to turn on and off genome editing in bacteria, mammals, and insects, including control of gene drives in a mosquito vector for malaria. The team seeks to build a general platform for the rapid and cost-effective identification of chemicals that will block contemporary and next-generation genome editors. Such chemicals could propel the development of therapeutic applications of genome editors by limiting off-target effects or protect against future biological threats. The team will also construct synthetic genome editors for precision precision genome engineering.

DARPA’s Safe Genes program manager, Renee Wegrzyn commented, “Part of our challenge and commitment under Safe Genes is to make sense of the ethical implications of gene-editing technologies, understanding people’s concerns, and directing our research to proactively address them so that stakeholders are equipped with data to inform future choices,”.

“As with all powerful capabilities, society can and should weigh the risks and merits of responsibly using such tools. We believe that further research and development can inform that conversation by helping people to understand and shape what is possible, probable, and vulnerable with these technologies.”

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