A commitment to community, reducing inequity and health disparities in health care, educating the next generation in gene editing, and advocating that all people have access to breakthrough technologies have long been priorities for the Gene Editing Institute at the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center & Research Institute at ChristianaCare in Delaware. Eric Kmiec, Ph.D. a pioneer in the field of gene editing and director of the Gene Editing Institute, recently had an opportunity to talk about these priorities as part of a media briefing coordinated in conjunction with the region’s Cell & Gene Therapy and Connected Health Initiative.

The Gene Editing Institute is a worldwide leader in CRISPR gene editing technology and the only institute of its kind based within a community health care system. “We are a fairly unique group. We are imbedded within a health system that is nationally known for its excellence in patient care,” said Dr. Kmiec. “We have found it’s actually been the best location for the development of a bio therapeutic product, especially one that is so innovative as CRISPR,” he said. “Being imbedded in a system where we see all levels of socioeconomic development . . . it gives us a real perspective that this is really not about the technology or not really about CRISPR, it’s actually more about the patient, and as we move forward on the technology, we do want to actually translate that into patients,” he said.

Working with underserved communities led to a mission “of making sure that these technologies are going to be available to populations for which they are seldom available,” Dr. Kmiec said. To fulfill the mission means both a focus on the development of the science, as well as providing education in the community and engaging in activities that build trust.

One step toward making a difference has come in the form of an educational tool called CRISPR in a Box™, and the Gene Editing Institute’s commitment to educating the next generation of scientists, including some that might be interested in gene editing. The gene editing kit was developed through a partnership with the Delaware Technical Community College, and Rockland Immunochemicals, Inc., with funding from the National Science Foundation. It is “a laboratory exercise that can be performed in high schools, in community colleges, and four-year colleges,” Dr. Kmiec said. “What it does is it teaches kids how to basically go through a gene editing experience.”

Taking the program a step further, Dr. Kmiec and his team have extended and coupled it with the Gene Editing Institute’s long-term interest in sickle cell disease. “We believe – and this is a very forward-thinking statement – that CRISPR can cure sickle cell disease, and there are excellent groups around the country doing that, and we’re one of them,” he said. “We’re working hard on it, but we felt it was time, with what’s happened over the summer, to not only reach out to underserved communities from the standpoint of making them comfortable with new breakthrough technologies, but to get into high schools where African American students can essentially join us in the fight against sickle cell disease.”

“We’ll also be providing them with a birds-eye view of our own work,” Dr. Kmiec added. “We just received a million dollar grant to continue on looking at the diversity of responses in African America regenerative cells to various forms of CRISPR, and we’re going to let the students follow us along, hopefully by a weekly or biweekly live stream from the people doing the work.”

The program aims to increase trust and understanding within the community that this might actually be something that they can help achieve, he said. His team is working with the Delaware Department of Education and DETV to distribute the program to African American students. “Our message to the high school students and college students is to come join us in a fight against sickle cell diseases.”

For a link to the media briefing recording with Dr. Kmiec, contact Michele Washko at [email protected].