UC Berkeley to receive U.S. Defense Department funds for gene editing research

SAN FRANCISCO, July 20 (Xinhua) — The University of California, Berkeley, said Thursday it will join a research funded by U.S. Defense Department (DOD) to improve the safety and accuracy of gene editing.
The project is one of the seven announced the same day by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an agency of DOD responsible for the development of new technologies for military use with a total 65 million U.S. dollars in funding.
The team led by UC Berkeley included the University of California, San Francisco, and Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, California.
DARPA noted that the project is aiming to develop better ways to insert gene-editing molecules, including CRISPR-Cas9, short for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats Associated Protein 9, into living cells; explore applications of CRISPR proteins other than the popular Cas9, such as RNA-snipping Cas13a; discover more anti-CRISPR proteins that can be used to keep gene editing under tight control; and employ these tools in the fight against major viral diseases, such as Ebola and Zika.
In addition, the research team headed by UC Berkeley’s Jennifer Doudna, one of the pioneers who worked on CRISPR-Cas9, will investigate whether these tools might someday be capable of disabling bioterrorism threats, such as novel infectious agents or weapons employing CRISPR itself.
Phase 1 funding to UC Berkeley and UCSF will amount to about 1.65 million dollars over two years, with a potential additional two years and 1.64 million dollars of funding. As a partner in this effort, Sandia will receive funds directly from DARPA, under its Safe Genes program.
UC Berkeley is also part of another DARPA project funded by the Safe Genes program. Assistant Professor John Marshall has teamed up with a University of California, Riverside, team to develop robust and reversible gene-drive systems for control of Aedes aegypti mosquito populations. With emphasis on biosafety and reversibility, the DARPA award will also fund preliminary testing in contained, simulated natural environments and in high-throughput, rapidly reproducing populations of yeast as a model system.
Renee Wegrzyn, who manages DARPA’s Safe Genes program, was quoted as claiming Thursday that “DARPA launched Safe Genes to begin to refine those capabilities by emphasizing safety first for the full range of potential applications, enabling responsible science to proceed by providing tools to prevent and mitigate misuse.”
Echoing what Wegrzyn stated, Doudna, a professor of molecular and cell biology and of chemistry at UC Berkeley, noted that “from a biosecurity perspective, we hope that our technologies displace less safe technologies, and by demonstrating that gene-editing activity can be prophylactically or therapeutically shut down, discouraging its potential intentional misuse.”
The other DARPA-funded projects will take place at the Broad Institute and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard University, Massachusetts General Hospital, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and North Carolina State University.