Fannie and John Hertz Foundation Fellow and Evolutionary Engineer Kevin Esvelt Receives Exclusive DARPA Funding

August 29, 2017

LIVERMORE, CA – August 29, 2017 – The Fannie and John Hertz Foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedication to empowering America's most brilliant minds in science, mathematics and engineering is proud to announce that Hertz Fellow and Evolutionary Engineer Kevin Esvelt has been awarded funding from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) under its Safe Genes program to improve the safety and accuracy of gene editing. Esvelt and his team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab will use the funding to develop localized CRISPR gene drives, known as “daisy drives,” that are specifically designed to alter populations of wild organisms within a confined geographic region. The goal is to give each local community the opportunity to alter its own shared environment without forcing its decision on others. Localization would also reduce the risk of unintended alterations to ecosystems by permitting safe field trials that may not be possible with gene drive systems anticipated to spread indefinitely. The team will initially optimize and safety-test daisy drives in fast-reproducing worms, then apply it to key mosquito species that are known to impact human and animal health.

“The primary focus for our team is to explore the potential of CRISPR-based gene drives safely and openly, but also with a fixed eye on ethics,” said Esvelt. “We hold morally responsible for the consequences of our work, and strictly follow the two main rules of engineering complex systems: make the smallest possible change capable of solving the problem and start small before scaling up. Adhering to this approach will ensure that we develop a safer and more ethically sound version of a technology with extraordinary potential.”

Kevin Esvelt is the leader of Sculpting Evolution Group and an assistant professor at MIT Media Lab. His work focuses on evolutionary and ecological engineering and responsive science. Prior to working at MIT, Esvelt studied at the Wyss Institute and Harvard Medical School where he developed Phage-Assisted Continuous Evolution (PACE) to rapidly evolve new molecular tools. He has also developed key technologies utilizing the RNA-guided CRISPR/Cas 9 nuclease for genome engineering and regulation. In 2011, he was named a Thesis Prize winner by The Fannie and John Hertz Foundation. Esvelt received his PhD in biochemistry from Harvard University in 2010 and his BS in chemistry and biology from Harvey Mudd College in 2004.

“Kevin has long been passionate about genomic engineering, but has always approached gene-editing with a deep sense of responsibility,” said Robbee Baker Kosak, president, the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation. “The DARPA funding will allow him to work toward improving global health, perhaps by preventing the spread of malaria, dengue and other infectious diseases spread by mosquitos, while also developing ways to intentionally limit the scope of gene drive organisms to ensure it is done safely. I speak on behalf of the Foundation when I say we are extremely proud of Kevin and are not at all surprised to see he and his team recognized by DARPA with this prestigious award.”

According to DARPA, it “…created the Safe Genes program to gain a fundamental understanding of how gene editing technologies function; devise means to safely, responsibly, and predictably harness them for beneficial ends; and address potential health and security concerns related to their accidental or intentional misuse.” Esvelt and his team are one of seven teams to be granted a combined $65 million over a four-year contract to “…work to collect empirical data and develop a suite of versatile tools that can be applied independently or in combination to support bio-innovation and combat bio-threats.”


For more information about the work Esvelt and his team at the MIT Media Lab will do in fulfillment of the DARPA Safe Genes contract: https://medium.com/mit-media-lab/daisy-drive-a-local-open-and-community-responsive-approach-to-solving-ecological-problems-a31e1898be8e


For more information about the Sculpting Evolution Group: http://www.sculptingevolution.org/genedrives


For more information on the DARPA Safe Genes program:
(2017, July 20). DARPA awards $65M to improve gene-editing safety, accuracy. Retrieved from:
http://www.genengnews.com/gen-news-highlights/darpa-awards-65m-to-improve-gene-editing-safety-accuracy/81254686

(2017, July 19). Building the safe genes toolkit. Retrieved from:
https://www.darpa.mil/news-events/2017-07-19

Sanders, R. (2017, July 19). Defense department pours $65 million into making CRISPR safer. Retrieved from:
http://news.berkeley.edu/2017/07/19/defense-department-pours-65-million-into-making-crispr-safer/


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