High school students are getting a unique, hands-on experience in gene editing in an innovative program developed at the Gene Editing Institute at Christiana Care’s Helen F. Graham Cancer Center & Research Institute.

The program expands on a National Science Foundation grant in which the Gene Editing Institute partners with Delaware Technical Community College to provide curriculum to educate future research lab workers. It’s believed to be the first time an NSF grant has been used to educate students on a high school level, with the potential to expand to schools across the nation.

Eric Kmiec, Ph.D., director of the Gene Editing Institute, teaches a gene-editing class for visiting high school students at the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center & Research Institute.

“When we first envisioned this, we thought Delaware’s high school system would be an excellent place to roll this out,” said Eric Kmiec, Ph.D., director of the Gene Editing Institute. “The topic is so hot and so relevant.”

Eric Kmiec, Ph.D.

The first students to participate are from Wilmington Friends and The Tatnall School, who came with their teachers to the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center at Christiana Care.

Nicholas J. Petrelli, M.D., Bank of America endowed medical director of the Graham Cancer Center, welcomed the students. Dr. Kmiec lectured to Friends students, while Natalia Rivera-Torres, pre-doctoral scholar, addressed Tatnall students the following week. Students then were introduced to the gene editing protocol before a tour of the lab.

Students took the necessary materials back to their school labs, which they will use to manipulate genes in yeast cells, turning them from white to red using CRISPR, a gene-editing tool.

“The students were ecstatic,” said Hailey Weiner, business development coordinator at the Gene Editing Institute. “It was very inspiring.”

Ellen Johnson, who leads the science program at Friends, said students benefited from the opportunity to interact with researchers, technicians and students who are actively engaged in gene editing.

“We have the best of two worlds, as the students have been lucky to see and hear first-hand some of what is being accomplished at the Gene Editing Institute, and they will be following up on the field trip experience by working with the yeast model system in our biology lab at Wilmington Friends,” she said.

Sharon Kreamer, science department head at Tatnall, said experiences outside the classroom are invaluable for students.

“They allow students to see the real-world, practical application of what they are learning in their STEM classes and get a glimpse into what careers in science really look like,” she said.

Ally Kong, an Advanced Placement biology student, will be using the curriculum as her independent study during her final semester at Tatnall and will be leading the course for her fellow classmates.

“We all are so excited to have the opportunity to perform the CRISPR yeast lab at school,” she said.

Timothy Arnold, a senior at Friends, is intrigued by the possibilities gene editing offers in increasing the world’s food supply while preserving the environment.

“I’m really interested in conservation biology, and I know that by creating more efficient crops, we can reduce the amount of land that we take up and increase the amount of natural habitat we have for endangered species,” he said.

Tony Bennett, a Friends senior, plans to study biology in college to prepare for a career in research. He believes the program gives him a head start on his studies.

“I expect that I’ll be working with CRISPR, or I’ll have classmates or professors that work with CRISPR, so I’ll be maybe at the forefront of this technology as I continue my education,” he said.

More students will have that opportunity as the program expands, Dr. Kmiec said.

“Gene editing and this platform technology is an exciting research tool many of these students will be using in college,” he said. “Delaware students will do better by being prepared with the latest technology.”

The Gene Editing Institute’s missions include translational research and technology development, partnerships and commercialization, genome customization as a core facility and finally, education. The center receives requests for curriculum and kits from schools across the country and is currently developing two additional gene editing curriculums.

Plans are to partner with Del Tech to host future programs for high school students.