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St. Louis poised to become ‘major player’ in emergence of gene-editing technology

From left, Vijay Chauhan, Natalie DiNicola and Dena Ladd discussed gene-editing technology on this Tuesday's St. Louis on the Air.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
From left, Vijay Chauhan, Natalie DiNicola and Dena Ladd discussed gene-editing technology on this Tuesday's "St. Louis on the Air."

Gene editing – a novel technique consisting of editing, replacing or deleting gene sequences – is a growing practice in the St. Louis area.

This new ability to redefine and reconstruct organisms at the genetic level is quickly influencing research in a variety of fields, including medicine, agriculture and industry.

Vijay Chauhan, project lead at GlobalSTL, told host Don Marsh on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air that the practice is, “really like a cut-and-paste of the genes of the various species that we’re trying to improve.”

Natalie DiNicola, chief communications officer at Benson Hill Biosystems, added that the process allows “very precise expression within the genome.”

DiNicola explained the agricultural benefits of gene editing, saying that it “allows us to focus on … farmer benefits and consumer benefits at the same time,” by developing crops that are simple to harvest and healthful for consumers.

Dena Ladd, executive director of Missouri Cures, joined the conversation to describe a different set of benefits promised by the new technology: the treatment of genetically defined diseases.

According to Ladd, gene editing allows physicians treating hereditary diseases to “address the underlying root cause at the genetic level.”

Despite the benefits, the new technology is not an uncontroversial one. Many have raised concerns about the implications of such an intrusive technology, but Chauhan said that scientists and industry professionals take these worries seriously.

“With all great technology, one must be very careful to create the rules of engagement … and the whole regulatory and bioethical construct in which all this needs to be done,” he said. “I think people are recognizing that this has tremendous potential but needs to be very carefully harnessed.”

Ladd noted that developers will not move forward with the technology until they are fully assured of the safety of the method, adding that the Food and Drug Administration and National Institutes of Health will play a major role in regulating the technology.

Still, the guests all expressed confidence in the future of the emerging technology. DiNicola described the possibilities gene editing presents for farmers attempting to combat challenges such as climate change, constrained resources and population growth.

Furthermore, Chauhan noted the possibilities the gene-editing techniques present for the city of St. Louis, calling it a region “really well-positioned to be a major player in gene-editing technology.”

Related Event
What: Gene Editing: Innovation and Impact in Missouri
When: 8:30 a.m. to noon Tuesday, November 13, 2018
Where: Donald Danforth Plant Science Center (975 N. Warson Rd., St. Louis, MO 63132)

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie HemphillLara Hamdan and Xandra Ellin give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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