George Church

George Church, Professor of Genetics, Harvard Medical School

Harvard scientist, George Church is putting his efforts into using an alternative, older technology to recode an entire human genome in hundreds of thousands of locations, in order to make it immune to viruses. 

The news was revealed by Cellectis, a biotechnology company that controls the intellectual property around the older technology, called TALEN’s, writes Forbes

This is all part of a wider effort, called GP-Write, which aims to reduce the cost of editing DNA by 1,000-fold, much as the original Human Genome Project led to a dramatic decrease in the cost of reading human DNA. 

Although Church stressed that he thinks every technology possible should be part of the effort, he did express that there are still issues with any technology that necessitates cutting DNA, as CRISPR does, for making large numbers of genetic changes, but that TALEN technology may hold promise. 

“It’s also fair to say there is quite a fad tendency that when a few positive results or the illusion of cost can drive a field away from something that is reasonable technology,” he explained. “I have a tendency to keep following technologies long after they’ve been discounted or long before they have been counted in. There is no bad technology.”

eGenesis, a company co-founded by Church is already using CRISPR to make edits to pigs in order to remove retroviruses embedded in their genetic code that some worry could be dangerous to humans. The goal is to make the pig organs transplanted into people. However, the goal with the rewrite program is projected at a much larger scale. 

Church noted that removing the porcine retroviruses will involve making at most 62 genetic edits. In addition to this project, he is also involved in making an Asian elephant resemble a woolly mammoth, which would require 44 changes. But, to consider these changes for making human cells virus-proof would require making 230,000 changes, he says. If it worked, the cells might be used in manufacturing or to create cancer-killing white blood cells of the type that Cellectis is developing. But, the implication would be even bigger: it would mean that in the future DNA might be far more changeable than just about anyone imagines now.