Rodolphe Barrangou and other scientists wrote a research paper in 2007 about a bacteria found in yogurt that they likened to a pair of “molecular scissors.” When injected into animal embryos, it snipped away genetic mutations that caused cancer or other diseases.
The paper shined light on a genome-editing technique called CRISPR, and research flourished industry-wide. In 2013, Barrangou left his private-sector job with DuPont and joined the faculty at N.C. State University as an associate professor in the department of food, bioprocessing and nutrition sciences.
He’s still researching the technology he calls groundbreaking. Last year, he was included in a story about CRISPR in Time Magazine.
“From a scientific standpoint, CRISPR is undoubtedly one of the best technologies of our lifetime,” Barrangou says. “It works, it seems safe, it seems efficacious, and it blows out of the water all incumbent technologies currently being used in clinical trials to cure human diseases.”
Here, Barrangou, 42, explains his work and when the technology could be used to treat patients with cancer or other illnesses.
Q: Did you discover CRISPR?
A: No. We showed what CRISPR actually does and how it works. The role of CRISPR (at the time) was known as a peculiar yet fascinating and mysterious piece of DNA in the genome of the bacteria.
Q: In layman’s terms, how does it work?
A: When editors have a typo or misuse a particular word, they can edit it out and correct it. So in the context of genome editing, what CRISPR allows you to do is find a particular combination of letters of interest ... and then edit it specifically.
So in the genome, you can say, “I’m going to look for that sequence that is unique where there is a defective gene, and I’m going to cut the sequence of DNA where it’s faulty and correct it.”
Q: Your earned your master’s and doctoral degrees at N.C. State in 2000 and 2004, respectively. What made you decide to come back?
A: Having been born and raised in Paris, I wanted to try something different. I had to have something that was a big enough city where there was some kind of urban life. I wanted nice weather; I wanted it to be close to the beach and close to the mountains but not too urban, no traffic and whatnot.
And Raleigh is one of the handful of cities that affords those things.
Q: How are you furthering your research?
A: We are advancing CRISPR-based technologies to promote healthier diet and healthier food products. We work with the bacteria, and we try to make better bugs that make better cheese or better yogurt.
Q: Can other bacteria play a role in genome editing?
A: Absolutely. If you have a good kitchen in your house, you probably have multiple knives. So think of CRISPR as a kind of knife. Some CRISPRs are very precise like a scalpel, but other CRISPRs in bacteria are more disruptive like an ax or a chainsaw.
If you’re trying to take a human cell that is a bad cell because it has a mutation, you want to go in with a precise scalpel and cut that DNA out and correct it.
If you have a bad cell that’s going berserk, like a cancer cell, you’re not going to go in with a scalpel, you’re going to go in with a chainsaw so it’s beyond repair and can’t multiply any more in your body.
Q: When might we see CRISPR used commercially?
A: Years. It’s supposed to go into phase 1 (clinical trials) sometime in 2018 and finish in 2019. Phase 2 will focus on efficacy, and Phase 3, a larger patient population. How long those trials will be is dependent upon what targets they’re after and what indications they’re after.
It’s a couple of years away, but in the meantime, we can use animal models and lab work to pretest in vitro and in vivo how promising the technology is and how safe or how toxic it is, or not, or how efficacious it is.
The great news is that CRISPR is arguably one of the most promising technologies of our generation. All of the ingredients are there for a masterpiece, but it doesn’t mean you can rush to the finish. You still have to go through time-tested processes.
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Born: July 20, 1975
Family: Wife and three children
Accolades: He has five degrees, 17 patents and 10 awards, including the Canada Gairdner International Award, which he received in 2016. It’s one of the world’s most esteemed medical research prizes. He is also the Todd R. Klaenhammer Distinguished Scholar in Probiotics Research at N.C. State.
Fun fact: He met his wife in the pickle lab as a grad student at N.C. State while studying in the department of food, bioprocessing and nutrition sciences.