This story was so so cool to write just because of the topic, and how this guy makes a living, his current research, et cetera. I loved writing something for the real world and so science-based. I had this opportunity because our high school hosts an annual biotechnology symposium, and the list of speakers that have come over the years is extremely impressive, including the director of the NIH Francis Collins. Derek Jantz was the speaker this year, and you can read all about his work below.
Making decaf coffee beans, heat-resistant grass or potentially finding the cure for leukemia? This is all in a day’s work for Dr. Derek Jantz. The Chief Scientific Officer and Co-Founder of Precision Biosciences, a private biotech company, works to edit the genomes of a wide variety of plants, mice and humans to make products for other companies’ use. With his fascinating job, he couldn’t help but catch the attention of our very own STEM Academy Co-director and teacher Myron Blosser, founder and coordinator of the annual Biotechnology Symposium. With his interest piqued, Blosser asked Jantz to be the keynote speaker for the event. A kickoff to the day of science, it’s not a stretch to say that Jantz sparked the interests of many students.
One topic Jantz explored was his current research pertaining to leukemia. Precision Biosciences has been working with t-cells, removing their natural receptors and replacing them with chimeric antigens, receptors that will look for cancer markers. According to Jantz, it is the most important research being done within the company currently. Precision Biosciences has already experimented with mice, and is looking forward to being in clinical trial by next year.
“There are several forms of leukemia and no two patients have exactly the same disease. There are a lot of treatment options available already, most of which work for the majority of patients. Our therapy is really aimed at those patients for whom the current treatments aren’t effective,” Jantz said.
As to the past, Jantz’s greatest achievement in his field was the creation of a process to create a restriction enzyme he called a meganuclease, which allows him to more accurately cut DNA than say the better-known CRISPR.
“My biggest discovery was coming up with a method to make a natural enzyme that cuts DNA, like DNA scissors, [and] recognizes and cuts a new DNA sequence of my choosing. That allows me to cut the DNA sequence of a cell at a gene of interest. Once a gene’s DNA is cut, we can change or edit the sequence of that gene to repair it or change its function,” Jantz said. “[This discovery allows us to] cure genetic disorders, engineer cells to hunt and kill tumors, give crops novel traits that help them survive under difficult conditions.”
Overall, genome editing may be the only hope for many.
“There are a lot of genetic diseases that just can’t be treated any other way. Millions of patients with these diseases don’t have any options right now. I think a lot of the projects that we have underway in cancer and agriculture will have very positive impacts on society, but genetic disease is really the holy grail,” Jantz said.
If Precision Biosciences succeeds, there will be other challenges to come.
“Right now, we’re pretty much on moral high ground. Not many people would argue that treating sick patients is unethical. If we’re successful, however, these treatments will eventually reach the market, and they aren’t going to be cheap at all. At that point, we will need to figure out how to maximize patient access to the treatment while running a sustainable business. I suspect some difficult decisions will need to be made,” Jantz said.
Before they achieve this, though, their products must be fully tested, a major challenge in itself.
“[Genome editing has] never been tried in people, so we don’t quite know what’s going to happen. We can do a lot of testing in advance to convince ourselves that it’s safe, but you don’t know for certain until it’s in the first patient. And, of course, there’s always the possibility that some crazy person will try to bring back velociraptors.”
Though not dealing with any ethical challenges himself, Jantz does have views on the extent to which genetic modification should be employed.
“I don’t really know if it’s a hard and fast line, and what constitutes a severe disease from a less severe disease. We have projects underway for the treatment of life threatening diseases, we also have treatment underway for blindness, which is not life-threatening, but I think a person who is losing their sight would probably say it’s a good thing to go in and modify their genome and save their sight,” Jantz said. “I think right now where we’re headed and where the field is at is something that really legitimately enhances either survival or in a big way the quality of life and the ability of a person to take care of their life, then it is justified. Something like baldness, no.”
With all of the advancements occurring in the field, Jantz hopes the young scientists he spoke to will consider a career in the biotech field.
“Someone is going to have to put the dinosaurs [that are brought back] in their cages… If I’m going to live to be 120, it is imperative that some of you go into biotech and pursue the next generation of research while I’m still alive to take advantage of it,” Jantz said. “I think aging is the next frontier. Why do we age? Why does everybody die, eventually? There are a lot of theories, but nobody has really provided solid evidence for why we age. But it’s coming. And once we understand why we age, a whole bunch of people are going to start looking for biotech strategies to combat it. My bet is somebody will find a “solution” to aging in the next 50 years. And then things will really get interesting.”