Brandeis hosted the 17th annual Heskel Gabbay Award Lecture, titled “Genome Editing with CRISPR-Cas9,” yesterday.

Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier of Hannover Medical School, Dr. Jennifer Doudna of University of California, Berkeley and Dr. Feng Zhang of the McGovern Institute were the award recipients who presented their work.

The award recipients each individually presented their work on the CRISPR system.

CRISPR systems, locations of genes containing short repetitions of base sequences, provide a form of acquired immunity to bacteria and can be applied to all types of cells. Cas are genes that code for CRISPR-related proteins. Cas9 refers to a specific gene.

The first presenter was Dr. Charpentier. Her lecture was entitled “CRISPR-Cas9: A bacterial adaptive immune system harnessed for genome engineering.”

She presented her work to show where the CRISPR project had started and the current and future trajectory of the project.

“The CRISPR-Cas9 system allows precise gene ‘surgery’ in any cell and organism,” she said.

Charpentier explained how she and her team came to develop this novel tool for genome engineering. According to Charpentier, in the future, the cas9 system could offer considerable potential for genome editing in cells for biotechnological, biomedical and gene therapeutic purposes, including cancer cures.

Dr. Doudna was the second presenter. Her presentation was titled “CRISPR-Cas9 Biology: From Basic Science to Breakthrough Technology.”

Doudna’s part of the project focused on the mechanics of the system and more specifically, how an in-depth understanding of the system could be applied to future developments in CRISPR biology.

She explained current challenges to genetic engineering including the expense and the slowness of systems.

According to Doudna, initial experiments performed to further determine the structure and function of the CRISPR system indicated that it was “fully programmable.”

Doudna added that CRISPR is simpler to use than any other technology currently available.

Doudna concluded by providing a real-world example of application of the CRISPR system.

She explained that dairy companies are constantly trying to combat the problem of how to protect their products from viral infection and as a result, are interested in building up immunity by using the CRISPR system. However, this application still needs to be further investigated.

The final segment of the event was a lecture presented by Dr. Zhang and was titled “Development and Applications of CRISPR-Cas9 for Genomic Editing” and focused on applications of the system in the laboratory.

Zhang first provided the background for his own lab, which focuses on how to restrict synthesizing certain proteins in certain populations of neurons.

Through his research with the CRISPR system, Zhang and his team aimed to develop foundational technology, expand modes of genomic perturbation, develop an open source of information for the community and demonstrate uses in biological and therapeutic contexts.

This last goal was particularly relevant to brain cancer research, which is Zhang’s focus.

By using the CRISPR system, experiments could be conducted to discern the mechanisms of tumor growth and infection in cells by testing genetic mutations, which significantly broaden researchers’ understanding of cancer mechanisms.

After all three presentations had concluded, audience members were encouraged to ask questions.

The audience members ranged from former researchers to future graduate students of CRISPR biology.

Most questions asked concerned further application of the system in other branches of microbiology, as well as the more specific mechanics of the CRISPR system.

According to the three presenters, with other people joining in the field of CRISPR biology and more significance placed on the field, further developments are sure to emerge.

The Jacob Heskel Gabbay Award in Biotechnology and Medicine recognizes scientists in academia, medicine or industry whose work had outstanding scientific content and significant practical consequences in the biomedical sciences. Nominations are solicited in industry and academia, and then a panel of distinguished researchers is assembled to consider nominations.