CRISPR crash course: Brazilian scientists learn gene editing at UMMS

Scholars from two Brazilian universities are spending time at Michigan Medicine to gain expertise on the latest gene-modification techniques.

Associate Professor of Molecular & Integrative Physiology Carol Elias (left) and Director of the U-M Transgenetic Animal Core Thom Saunders (center) organized training for Brazilian colleagues to travel to UMMS to learn the latest CRISPR gene editing techniques.

The new collaboration brings together scientists from the University of Sao Paulo’s Ribeirao Preto Medical School, the State University of Campinas School of Applied Sciences, and UMMS to develop genetically modified mice using CRISPR. The fast, inexpensive gene editing method is helping researchers more easily create mouse models to study a variety of diseases, and the teams from Brazil are among the latest to come to UMMS to learn it.

“We host what I call a CRISPR mouse genetics boot camp about every quarter,” said Thom Saunders, Research Associate Professor in the Department of Internal Medicine and the Director of the Transgenic Animal Model Core, one of U-M’s Biomedical Research Core Facilities. “You have people all over the world working to develop this new technique. The idea is to have people who are well trained so they can take their new skills back to their home institutions.”

Carol Elias, PhD, UMMS Associate Professor of Molecular and Integrative Physiology, organized the project, funded through the State of São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) and U-M. She is a Brazilian native and a former University of São Paulo researcher.

“My colleagues in Brazil have been using CRISPR but there are challenges,” said Dr. Elias. “At U-M, we have core facilities that focus exclusively on this work, so I spoke with Thom about hosting us and he was on board. It’s amazing how willing people are to collaborate here.”

Elias and Saunders are the UMMS project leaders. Their Brazilian counterparts are Marcos Torsoni, Assistant Professor of Applied Sciences at State University of Campinas, and Lucila Elias, Associate Professor of Physiology at University of São Paulo’s Ribeirao Preto Medical School. The grant will help pay for two different Brazilian teams to visit the Transgenic Animal Core lab for what amounts to a short-but-intensive CRISPR crash course. The first team arrived in mid-February, a second group is expected later this year, and Elias and Saunders will travel to Brazil next year to check on the researchers’ progress implementing the technique in their own labs.

All of the investigators have different scientific interests – reproduction, energy homeostasis, metabolic diseases, cancer, etc. – but the CRISPR technology, which allows scientists to target and alter specific areas of the genome, can be applied to study the underlying genetic causes of virtually any disease. State University of Campinas Research Associate Fernando Simabuco, who was among the first group to complete the training, studies cancer and other human diseases using human cell lines, which he hopes now to develop using CRISPR.

“It is intense because we cover so much ground in two weeks, but it’s been really good to get the hands-on experience,” said Simabuco, PhD. “I’m excited to get back to Brazil to try it out in my own lab.”