36 Intriguing Delawareans • Eric Kmiec
Pioneer of gene editing
Eric Kmiec, founder and director of the Gene Editing Institute at the Helen F. Graham Cancer & Research Institute at Christiana Care, is excited about its projects on gene editing, which the prestigious journal Science called 2016’s breakthrough technology. “We’re using genetic medicine to correct the spelling errors in our DNA. It’s really a mind-blowing way to reduce the degree of cancer,” says Kmiec, 61 (“I feel like 41 with the energy of a 31-year-old guy!”). The institute is using animals and human cells to activate the immune system “to teach our cells to attack the tumor,” and he hopes in 2018 to start testing human subjects who have lung cancer and melanoma. The institute recently developed a module to teach gene editing to college undergraduates.
Kmiec’s involvement in molecular biology goes back to a summer job at Rutgers. “Part of my responsibilities was to culture and carry out primitive genetic analysis of pathogenic bacteria, and I became interested in how bacterial DNA evolved over time to confer resistance to antibiotics,” he says. “I ended up being very interested in understanding how chromosomes exchange information, a fundamental genetic reaction that is best studied using molecular techniques.”
He followed his 1984 doctorate in molecular biology and biochemistry with an accolade-heavy career of earning 18 patents, teaching at colleges (including Delaware State University and the University of Delaware), directing research institutes and founding firms focused on gene editing (including Kimeragen and OrphageniX). “Gene editing sort of led me to applications for cancer therapy,” he says. “The remarkable versatility of gene editing as a platform technology will ultimately affect every type of biomedical research. Obviously, the most vexing challenge to many of us is how best to aid in developing innovative and novel therapies for cancer treatment. Interestingly, the use of gene editing technologies to augment current therapies such as reducing the amount of chemotherapy required to successfully treat a tumor is at the heart of our own research projects now.”
He was drawn to Christiana Care by Nicholas J. Petrelli, the institute’s medical director. “I could tell early on he wanted to win and was willing to push the envelope to succeed,” Kmiec says of Petrelli. “This style reflects my own approach to science and life. My wife says I see life as a competitive sport.” So he moved his research group and created the institute in 2015. “I think the possibilities are now endless for the development of innovative therapies as the field of gene editing becomes a major part of cancer treatment all over the world,” he says.