Last week Dr. Feng Zhang from MIT visited BioInnovation Institute to give a “Talk at the Square” about harnessing microbial diversity for gene editing and beyond.
Dr. Feng Zhang is one of the pioneers in the development of CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing and a leader in the field of optogenetics, a biological technique using light to control cells in living tissue, typically neurons, which was named the 2010 ‘method of the year’ by Nature.
As a child, he always liked to take things apart and put them back together. His first encounter with molecular biology was in middle school after his family had moved from China to the US and up until then, biology had bored him. He was much more interested in engineering but when he saw the opportunity to fix problems at a biological level, his interest was caught.
When he reached high school, he began to volunteer at a gene therapy research institute that was affiliated with a nearby hospital. Here he worked with a scientist every day after school for two years, and this mentorship was a great inspiration.
Feng Zhang has a BA from Harvard and a Ph.D. degree from Stanford, and today at age 37, he holds the James and Patricia Poitras Professorship of Neuroscience at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research and in the departments of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Biological Engineering at the MIT. He co-founded his first start-up five years ago and today the company is on the verge of testing in humans by injecting AAVs carrying CRISPR into the eye to treat blindness.
What does it take to make a scientific breakthrough?
It takes curiosity and interest, and you must be open-minded to every new piece of information you find. My parents and teachers have always encouraged me to pursue things that interest me and to ask questions. To make a breakthrough it helps to have a specific problem in mind and constantly keep a focus on both seeking and applying new information to the problem. In my case, I was interested in the complexity of the brain, and when a close friend suffered from depression in college, it led me to work with gene editing as a solution to mental illnesses.
When did you realize you were on the verge of a breakthrough regarding CRISPR?
I was very excited when I learned about CRISPR back in 2011. At that time, I knew of other ways to edit genes like TALEN and ZFN, but they were difficult to work with. When I learned that CRISPR was much simpler to reprogram, I realized I could make a difference if I could harness the system into a genetic tool.
What are you currently working on?
I am interested in developing new technology to improve human health and one of the approaches is to take inspiration from nature. Many gene editing technologies are based on the microbial defense systems and the mechanisms in the bacterial world are very fascinating. By finding out how they work, they can be turned in to tools and become a way to treat deceases and improve human health.
What is your vision for synthetic biology?
It is very exciting how we in the past decades have started to understand some of the fundamental principles in the field of biology. Based on that we can begin to engineer cells to produce solutions that can make us healthier. It also brings up a lot of ethical considerations and it is important to be thoughtful around how to apply the technology. It is still too immature to be applied in humans but as it matures, we need to engage the society in these ethical discussions, and it is not too early to start. As scientists, we are here to help people understand, but we are not ethical experts nor policymakers.
What words of advice would you give aspiring researchers?
Three things. The first is to follow your passion and stay curious. The second is to find good mentors to learn from, and the third is to collaborate. You can only accomplish so much on your own. Find people who share your goal and solve big problems together.
The ‘Talks at the Square’ is an event series by BioInnovation Institute (BII) with a key focus on spreading ideas and knowledge in life science entrepreneurship to inspire researchers to bring science out of the lab and into the economy.