NC company helps bring CRISPR to high schools

High school students across the country can now easily and affordably perform cutting-edge gene editing thanks to the new CRISPR in a Box educational kit. Burlington-based Carolina Biological Supply Company has entered into an exclusive partnership with the ChristianaCare Gene Editing Institute in Delaware to manufacture and distribute the educational tool.

CRISPR in a Box allows students to use CRISPR like a pair of “molecular scissors” that cuts DNA at specific locations and delete sections or replace them with other sequences. The Gene Editing Institute, a subsidiary of the Delaware-based Christiana Care health system, designed CRISPR in a Box to make gene editing accessible to high school students.

“Carolina and the Gene Editing Institute have a shared mission to empower, inspire and engage the next generation of scientists,” said Mark Meszaros, vice president for core product management and innovation at Carolina Biological. “Our partnership was a natural fit for creating and providing lab experiences for students to discover and learn about CRISPR gene editing.”

Carolina Biological teaching
Amanda Hewes, education program manager at the ChristianaCare Gene
Editing Institute using the CRISPR in a Box kit with high school students. 

Gene editing without cells

Traditional CRISPR reactions require live cells and tissue culture equipment that can cost up to $25,000 and is difficult to use. By providing the enzymes necessary to carry out CRISPR without the cells, the CRISPR in a Box kit allows real CRISPR reactions to be performed in a test tube without the extra equipment.

“We worked with Carolina Biological to make gene editing accessible to all students, not just those in well-funded schools,” said Eric Kmiec, Ph.D., executive director and chief scientific officer of the Gene Editing Institute. “Our cell-free approach allows students to engage in genuine gene editing without the complexity and cost associated with traditional methods.”

The kit has been used in the Gene Editing Institute's Learning Lab, where teachers can bring students to a fully stocked laboratory for a half-day gene editing experience. Students also get the opportunity to learn directly from experts in the field about their own experiences and careers in the science of gene editing.

“It is very important for students, especially from underrepresented communities, to try our technology with their own hands and understand how it works and that it is safe,” Kmiec said. “The future of gene editing is bright, and the possibilities are endless if we encourage diversity and inspire the right people to join our field of science.”

Kmiec said that the response from students using CRISPR in a Box in the Learning Lab has been overwhelmingly positive, with many expressing interest in pursuing careers in biotech as a result of their experiences.

“Our collaboration with Carolina is characterized by complementary skill sets, where each of us focus on our strengths,” said Kmiec. “Although we developed the technology used in CRISPR in a Box, without Carolina’s refinement it wouldn’t be practical for students anywhere to use.”

A new tool for community colleges

The new kit is not limited to high schools. The Gene Editing Institute has also used it in community colleges to provide students with an accessible platform to try their hands at gene editing. With North Carolina’s focus on growing its biotech workforce, this kit offers a new way to give students practical experience with an important biotech tool while fostering a deeper understanding of molecular biology and its real-world applications.

“Research shows that, when students understand how the science and hands-on skills relate to the real world, that they are more engaged and willing to learn,” said Meszaros. “This kit is an excellent example of cutting-edge technology that students may be hearing about and wondering how it works. And now they get to learn firsthand about the process and understand its possibilities.”  

Nancy Johnston, executive director of the Piedmont Triad regional office for North Carolina Biotechnology Center, said that it is great to see a locally founded global supplier of science teaching materials like Carolina Biological Supply continue to innovate and provide relevant hands-on learning for a wide array of learning environments.

"This is yet another example of the unique statewide organizations that contribute to North Carolina’s leadership in talent in workforce development,” Johnston said.

The Gene Editing Institute and Carolina plan to continue to work together on new educational endeavors. For example, they are exploring the possibility of offering a software program called DECODR to further enhance the educational experience of the CRISPR in a Box kit. This bioinformatics program shows users exactly what the outcome will be when specific genes are edited.

“CRISPR in a Box is the first of what will be many kits designed to bring CRISPR into classrooms by making the process approachable and accessible to newcomers and experts alike,” said Meszaros. “We are excited to continue growing the excellent teacher and student training performed at the Learning Lab at the Gene Editing Institute so that more students are prepared for the future biotechnology workplace.”

The CRISPR in a Box educational kit is available to schools for purchase through Carolina Biological Supply. 

Nancy Lamontagne, NCBiotech Writer
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