A few days ago, the TV show “60 Minutes” aired an episode with “famed” Harvard geneticist Dr. George Church. I use the word “famed” loosely. When compared to the Kardashians or to Adam Sandler, who was also in the episode, George Church is unknown.
In the scientific community, he would rank as one of the more famous individuals for sure. Dr. Church has authored many papers and started several companies. He has been involved in some significant milestones, such as the 1984 human genome project and the more recent personal genome project in 2005, which I participated in. There are several videos online of him talking about extending lifespan, growing organs, curing viral disease and even bringing back extinct species such as the woolly mammoth.
To learn a bit more and explore some of the fellow scientists he works with, you should visit the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering (https://wyss.harvard.edu/) and explore the page. It is a rabbit hole of a web page if you love science, so be warned that you may spend more time than you expected. Dr. Church is part of the core faculty at Wyss, but the institute has its hands in many other cutting edge fields.
One recent paper that has come out of the Wyss Institute was published in the journal Science in late November. Dr. Church was one of the authors, and the article is titled “Comprehensive AAV capsid fitness landscape reveals a viral gene and enables machine-guided design.” Scientific articles can be notoriously hard to read, and this one was a challenge for sure.
AAV is short for the adeno-associated virus, which is a virus of choice in genetic engineering. Think of the virus as a Trojan horse tool. If you want to edit or change the genome of a specific cell or group of cells, you need the means to get your edits in. Editing single cells or small populations in a petri dish is easy compared to trying to edit the genome of a living organism containing an immune system and trillions of cells.
A designer virus that can survive an immune response and accurately enter into a population of cells without impacting other cells would be a gold mine. Imagine a virus that could enter the mutated lung cells of a cystic fibrosis patient with high accuracy and deliver a “good” copy of the mutated DNA that causes the disease. This could potentially eliminate the disease, and science is getting there. This paper creates a library for AAVs and breaks open the door to engineering viruses that survive better and deliver their contents to particular cell populations more accurately.
Benjamin Boettner wrote a toned-down version of this paper for the Wyss Institute under the news tab of their web page. The paper includes some quotes from the authors and a short video about AAVs. I am happy to see that the Wyss Institute takes the time to simplify their complex work and make it more palatable. Check out Lindsay Brownell’s article on some new AAV based research titled “A lifeline for leaky lung cells.” It is super exciting.