SALEM — A large plastic tub arrived at New Liberty Innovation School Friday. It contained a cache of lab supplies, E. coli bacteria and scientific questions that are being addressed around the world.
The Massachusetts School of Science, Creativity and Leadership, also known as the Acera School, on Friday donated to New Liberty a full CRISPR kit, an enzyme-based DNA cutting tool being used around the world for gene editing and engineering.
CRISPR is shorthand for "Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats." The tech has made headlines around the world recently and even gone so far as to raise ethical questions throughout the scientific community as the potential for editing the genes of human embryos comes closer to reality.
The technology is a drastic leap in classroom instruction for Brenda Perez-Goodrum, a biotech and biomedical teacher and coordinator at New Liberty, an alternative high school within the Salem Public School district that serves 55 students in a space at the Witch City Mall.
"We just learned about transformation work with plasmids, and how plasmids can be altered with the 'GFP' gene to glow in the dark," Perez-Goodrum said Friday. "Now, we've got the ethical, moral and religious goings-on, where we work with scientists and say, if we're going to do this, should we do it?"
The kit and supplies was paid for by Acera and grant funding from Amgen Foundation and Bristol-Myers Squibb.
CRISPR made the news after a scientist in China announced last November that he successfully created the world's first genetically edited babies. The announcement generated worldwide discourse and mostly condemnation from others about the ethical and moral questions into whether the use of the technology had been taken too far.
Locally, the gene editing tool is being used by life science companies throughout the state.
"Real-world applications are critical for students today," Perez-Goodrum said. "The next unit is on cancer, so if we can figure that one out, we're all set. Maybe they'll find a cure for cancer in the next four weeks."
That's perhaps unlikely, as New Liberty's kit came with a package of experiments to give students a specific scenario to test and replicate results, if all goes to plan. The experiments focus on real E. coli bacteria and a gene to give it antibiotic resistance, according to Joshua Schuler, director of outreach for Acera.
"We brought all the lab equipment and materials that Brenda and her students might need, minus the larger capital equipment," Schuler said, indicating that larger equipment includes microwaves and hardware the class already has.
With that, the students get an edge on other high schoolers on the North Shore, according to Schuler.
"This is cutting-edge technology that students don't get to use hands-on. They get to hear about it a lot and see it," Schuler said. "That's the main reason we're here — to allow students to use the technology and learn about traditional biology life science subjects in a way that's more engaging, memorable and fun."
The students are eager to try it, especially given that it's an opportunity they say wouldn't have been available to them in other districts.
"At my old school, we didn't get to do anything like this," said Violet Cuevas, a sophomore at New Liberty who previously attended Classical High School in Lynn.
"You'll never know when you'll actually need this stuff," added Craig DeLuca, also a sophomore. "Learning it young helps us know about it in the future."
"It's stuff I've never really done before," said Maddie Economides, a junior. "Like what Violet was saying, it's the same with me. I went to Winthrop High, and we just didn't do any of the stuff we're doing in here. And it's way more interesting to actually get to experience and have a lot of hands-on stuff."