Photo by courtesy of ChristianaCare December 16, 2020
UD grads find success working at ChristianaCare’s Gene Editing Institute
Natalia Rivera-Torres, Brett Sansbury and Kelly Banas are still in the early stages of their professional careers. But already, these research scientists working at ChristianaCare’s Gene Editing Institute have earned national recognition for their work with CRISPR technology, expanding the use of gene editing to improve the diagnosis and treatment of diseases like cancer while also helping to increase access to gene editing techniques for the next generation of researchers.
Rivera-Torres, who graduated from the University of Delaware in 2019 with a doctorate in medical sciences from the Department of Medical and Molecular Sciences, is credited with helping researchers understand how gene repair is carried out in human cells and also how the process may vary in patient samples. She was also the first graduate student to receive a research fellowship award from the Andrew McDonough B+ Foundation.
Sansbury’s research while at UD — where she earned a doctorate in medical sciences this past May — led to the development of a gene editing tool for use outside the cell, speeding up the diagnostic process while also boosting precision. She is currently working with other researchers across the country to see whether gene editing can be used to help diagnose COVID-19.
Not to be outdone, Banas, who began working with the Gene Editing Institute in 2016 while an undergraduate Delaware INBRE Summer Scholar, has plans to complete her doctorate — also in UD’s medical sciences program — by spring 2021. She is working on and evaluating gene editing strategies in lung cancer treatments to make sure cancerous cells are targeted while healthy ones are spared.
Together, the trio — none of whom has turned 30 yet — have been part of nearly three dozen peer review journal articles about gene editing. It’s no surprise their boss calls them “The Big Three.”
“There is a strong motivation to succeed and a lot of eyes are on us,” said Eric Kmiec, director of the Gene Editing Institute at ChristianaCare. “We are a highly intense, aggressive laboratory that wants to contribute seriously to the field of gene editing. And that requires a special kind of person — someone who can stand the pressure of timelines and the demand for excellence.
“You have someone like Natalia who is developing the whole concept of gene editing. Then, Brett came along and she changed how CRISPR is studied. And Kelly has made significant contributions and changed a huge part of our lab with her discoveries. To have them all three together on different channels and different projects is incredible to watch.”
CRISPR is an acronym that stands for “clustered regularly interspaced palindromic repeats.” It describes a naturally occurring gene editing system found in some kinds of bacterial cells. When facing an attack, the cell clips some of the virus DNA and stores it to recognize and attack the virus the next time. A similar approach is used in the lab to edit DNA — researchers edit genetic code to remove mutations that cause disease or damage.
Although the field is still relatively young, it’s competitive with other scientists and labs around the globe trying to find the latest discoveries to expand the reach of gene editing, Kmiec said. ChristianaCare has been recognized as a leader in gene editing, leading to partnerships with companies around the globe.
That kind of collaboration is a direct result of the discoveries made by researchers at the Gene Editing Institute, Kmiec said. One example is Sansbury’s development of the cell-free CRISPR tool that allows CRISPR researchers to take apart the gene editing reaction biochemically and understand the diversity of genetic outcomes. It has led to multiple grants as well as the production of “CRISPR in a box,” an educational product to help high school and college students learn about gene editing.
Similarly, Rivera-Torres spent months working to determine which serotype of a virus could be used to deliver CRISPR to patients with lung cancer. She refused to give up until she found one that worked — even if that meant late nights in the lab making sense of disappointing results. Giving up wasn’t an option.
“This is not a place for someone who goes and hides in the corner,” Kmiec said. “I don't want people just skating through a Ph.D. Everybody in our lab — but I think Natalia, Brett and Kelly represent this very well — is actually committed to getting it right.”
Rivera-Torres is the most senior of The Big Three. She came to the Gene Editing Institute with Kmiec in 2015. Sansbury, who previously worked with Kmiec and Rivera-Torres at Delaware State University, joined them at the Gene Editing Institute a year later. Not long after, Banas came aboard while doing undergraduate research.
Their camaraderie is one of the strengths of the institute. Sansbury said it’s the kind of place where coworkers text at 4 a.m. to remind each other of upcoming deadlines and offer moral support, especially critical when juggling full-time research and grad school.
“The gene editing Institute is our second home,” said Rivera-Torres, who also has a master’s degree from DSU. “So when you think things are going to be a little bit longer than what you might have expected or things aren't going exactly how you want them to go, there's always a couple of people that will jump in and be like, ‘Can I help you?’ ”
Although she was always interested in medicine, Banas said, research was never something she considered until she met Rivera-Torres. Watching her colleagues find success in the lab as well as the classroom helped Banas navigate her own path.
It’s also why she talks with undergrads about the opportunities available in research.
“Potentially being in the shoes that Natalia and Brett are in, that's just kind of humbling,” Banas said. “I still have a lot to learn.”