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Targeting genes by the thousands

Tim Wang is a Ph.D. candidate in the field of biology and was drawn to MIT 6 years ago with a simple plan to study cancer with a genetic approach. The institute offered Wang the opportunity to work with the most revolutionary and cutting-edge tools in the world including CRISPR, being the genome-editing method. In using this, he was able to develop a technique with many applications for the study of many different diseases.

The Meaningful impact

Tim Wang
Wang grew up in California and started studying computer science in Berkeley at the University of California. Wang’s grandfather fell ill and was diagnosed with a disease, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Wang, not knowing what this was became more interested in learning about biomedical research and cancer. He discovered that research leads to an improved understanding of diseases which can lead to more effective treatments. Wang then changed his major to the bioengineering field. He was able to combine his knowledge of computational biology with the ability to analyze massive amounts of genome-wide datasets together with the fine-scale molecular biology.

Long-term research questions

For many years, model organisms were manipulated in fruit flies or bacteria. In more recent years the RNA interface process was being used to research the human genes but harnessing the molecular machinery that is used in human cells to turn off genes. It then directs it against other specific cells of interest. A huge problem with this type of technology was that it usually hit the intended gene but also hit many other genes in the process. Wang began working on a strategy that has been developed at Whitehead institute which manipulated the human gene. This strategy depends on a human leukemia cell that has half the genetic material of a normal human cell. It would have one copy instead of two copies.

Cancers weakness

Feng Zhang produced a ground-breaking study using the CRISPR system. In bacteria, the CRISPR will act like an immune system which provides protection against viruses by cutting up their DNA. The team them realized that this could be used in human cells as well. Scientists were using the CRISPR method to target genes one by one. Wang wanted rather use it to target all of the genes at the same time in order to determine the function of genes in the whole genome.

CRISPR system

The idea was to grow millions of cells in the lab and knock out one gene in each cell using CRISPR. In the process of doing this, the cells are marked with a barcode which allows the team to see which genes were knocked out. He would then use this barcode to grow more cells and see which ones survive and which ones die. This helps Wang decide which are essential for the growth of cancer cells.

This method is not straightforward as most of the essential cells for cancer are also essential in healthy cells, however, this information gathered during the research process will help with creating more personalized treatments or therapies.