George Church is an American geneticist, chemist, molecular engineer, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, and professor of health sciences and technology at Harvard and MIT. Church provides an informative and thorough overview of his work in genetics and gene therapy, which is the use of genes to treat or prevent disease. Church’s Harvard Ph.D. work included the initial methods for direct genome sequencing, as well as molecular multiplexing and barcoding. His innovative research and experimentation led to the first genome sequence (pathogen, Helicobacter pylori) in the mid-nineties.
His work has provided important and significant contributions to practically all next-generation DNA sequencing methods and a long list of companies who are leaders in the field. Church’s lab’s research on chip-DNA-synthesis, gene editing, and stem cell engineering led to the founding of multiple application-based companies in the areas of medical diagnostics, and synthetic biology and therapeutics. Church is the director of an IARPA (Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity) BRAIN Project and NIH Center for Excellence in Genomic Science.
Church discusses some of the new companies that he is involved with that are researching many scientific areas. He details one of his passion projects that seeks to impact human cells such that they will be resistant to all viruses. He talks about various endogenous viruses that exist within specific genomes, and exogenous viruses, and the methods of his lab is studying, particularly in regard to transplants. He explains that virus and disease transmission is a great concern in organ transplantation from pigs to humans, and how it is important to eliminate all endogenous retroviruses that could potentially cause disease once organs are transplanted. While the concept of animal to human organ transplant is not a new idea, Church explains that it has taken 20 years to develop new technologies for gene editing that can enable simultaneous changes in dozens of areas within the genome in order to make transplantation potentially possible.
The genetic expert talks about current research in the study of longevity and his interest in using gene therapy for the reversal of diseases and conditions such as obesity, type II diabetes, osteoarthritis, heart and kidney damage, etc. He discusses the categories that his lab looks for that can be manipulated, and he provides an overview of classic gene therapy for diseases that someone is born with, as well as the FDA approval needed. He provides examples such as how mitochondria is impacted by aging, and why important levels drop, and how gene therapy can provide a means to restore cells to more optimum levels for better functioning.
Church expounds upon the current options for genome sequencing and where he expects the advances in genetic research to lead us. He details how the price is coming down such that many people may soon have access to important genetic information that can greatly impact their lives, inform their decisions about having children with partners, and so forth. Church discusses epidemiology, therapies, and methods that apply to genetic research, and how the future will possibly see gene therapy become as commonplace as vaccinations are today.