Meet our alumni: David Liu

March 29, 2023

Alumnus David Liu

Photo of David Liu via wikipedia. Uncredited.

"We can correct the vast majority of DNA errors that cause genetic diseases"

The Harvard University magazine published almost a couple of decades ago that one of its professors, the chemist David Liu (Ph.D. '99,Chem) had been banned from entering in some Las Vegas casinos when he was 29 years old, after winning too much money playing blackjack. Asked if it's an urban legend, Liu smiles. “It is partially true. I was actually 21 years old and it wasn't just one night, ”he replies between laughs. The chemist was a young prodigy. At the age of 26, he was a professor at Harvard. At 31 he was already a professor. For fun, he used math in his head to gain an advantage at blackjack, a card game in which 21 points win. At the age of 43, in 2016, his team invented base editors, a tool for precisely modifying DNA that is revolutionizing medicine. Three months ago, a London hospital announced that it had used database editors to save Alyssa's life., a 13-year-old girl with very aggressive leukemia.

“Her cancer is in complete remission,” Liu celebrates. The operating manual of a human being, present in every cell, is a text with more than 3,000 million chemical letters. Errors in this DNA cause cancer and a multitude of diseases. Liu wants to rewrite this human book to eliminate typos. The Californian chemist, born in Riverside 49 years ago, compares his base editors to a pencil with an eraser, capable of removing a single letter and replacing it with another.

Alyssa's medical team, from University College London, used base editors to modify a donor's white blood cells to help them attack the girl's cancer cells. David Liu's astonishing techniques have outdated previous gene-editing tools, including those known as CRISPR, invented in 2012 and winners of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.. The researcher likens the original CRISPR to a pair of scissors, useful for roughly inactivating genes, but not for precise rewriting. His own pencil with an eraser is already being surpassed. In 2019, Liu announced a new tool: quality editing. “It's like a word processor: you can search for a specific sequence and replace the entire sequence with another sequence that you want,” he explains by videoconference. His quality editors, still in the experimental phase, can theoretically correct 89% of the 75,000 genetic variants associated with diseases.

Read the full interview here> (available in Spanish and English)

More Information

David Liu research website