Team:WPI Worcester/Integrated Practices

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The design of a scientific research project requires individuals to consider many things besides the science behind it. It is crucial to take into consideration the impact that your research could have on the world. During our design process, we interviewed a series of professionals about their opinions regarding the ethics and safety of our project and integrated their suggestions into our project.

Dr. Wen Xue, UMass Medical School RNA Therapeutics Institute

The interview with Dr. Xue focuses primarily on the potential to do a project based on single nucleotide base changes. His biggest concern was making sure that our system was equipped to handle the large spectrum of expression levels associated with genetic diseases. For example, two people with the same disease can express it differently based on how many mutations are present. By making sure that our system is tunable, we can ensure that both of these people can use our system for treatment. Our solution to this issue was including the reverse tetracycline Trans-activator (rtTa) gene on the end of the enzyme/dCas fusion plasmid. This gene allows us to control the amount of expression in our system by adding and removing Doxycycline. The more Doxycycline that we add to the system, the more expression we should see.

Dr. Erik Sontheimer, UMass Medical School RNA Therapeutics Institute

One of our main concerns when designing our project were the dangers and risks associated with current CRISPR technology with regard to editing the genome. When we spoke with Dr. Sontheimer he was in agreement with our reasoning. He argued that there was no point in spending time and money on treatment that can never actually be used because of risk factors such as off-target mutations. This concern was addressed during our design process when we decided to edit the RNA instead of DNA. Editing RNA allows us to turn off the system if anything were to go wrong and the damage would not be permanent. In the future, this aspect of our system will help us to ensure patients and their families that the risk is minimal.

Zachary Kennedy, Graduate Student at UMass Medical School RNA Therapeutics Institute

The concern brought up with Mr.Kennedy, in his interview, regarded how the public would react to a new technology focused on creating single nucleotide base changes. He answered by saying that “fear of the unknown is something we cannot change.” Through our discussion with Zach we came to the conclusion that the only way to ensure that the public will accept our research as a viable treatment option is to educate them, not only about our system but about biology concepts in general.

Jonathan Gootenberg, Graduate Student at Harvard University

The interview with Mr.Gootenberg helped address our concerns regarding the importance of public understanding of biological principles in relation to our research. Together, the team and Mr.Gootenberg came up a simpler way to explain DNA and RNA to the public. We decided to tell people that DNA is like a blueprint for your body. Everything that has ever or will ever happen to your body is coded in your DNA just like everything that will happen to a construction site is written somewhere in the blueprint. From these blueprints come the formation of action plans. Action plans are the hour to hour plans of what should be happening based on what has previously happened. These can change due to unforeseen bumps in the road without changing the blueprint for the site. RNA is just like these action plans, it can be changed without altering the DNA. BY explaining the concept of DNA and RNA to people in this way we can help them better understand that the risks associated with our system editing RNA are not as big as the risks associated with systems that edit DNA.

Omar Abudayyeh, MIT Class of 2016

The importance of educating the community about biological concepts was also discussed with Omar Abudayyeh. He stressed the importance of educating both children and adults since biology has not been a part of the common core a long time. We achieved this goal of public education through participation in WPI’s TouchTomorrow and Women in Science camp! You can read all about what activities we used to educate the community and what we learned HERE!