Internship at Venture Development Center Startup Leads to Groundbreaking Research Opportunities for Students
For any scientist, let alone an undergraduate, getting published in Nature or Science is very difficult to do. Less than 1 percent of the researchers at the entire university last year authored a paper in either journal, according to Nature Index.
So, imagine the high-five moment when UMass Boston biology students Emal Lesha, Haydy George, Jurgen Poci, and Rebeca Cortazio learned a few weeks ago that a paper they helped author was published in Science. George was acknowledged as a co–lead author.
(Pictured above from left) Haydy George and Emal Lesha
“Genome-wide inactivation of porcine endogenous retroviruses” reports the ability to use CRISPR–Cas9 to make 62 edits to the pig genome to remove latent retroviruses, presenting a solution to one of the largest safety concerns that has so far blocked progress in making pig organs compatible for xenotransplant in humans.
According to the study's abstract, the shortage of organs for transplantation is a major barrier to the treatment of organ failure. While porcine organs are considered promising, their use has been checked by concerns about transmission of porcine endogenous retroviruses (PERVs) to humans. Their research demonstrates the possibility that PERVs can be inactivated for clinical application to porcine-to-human xenotransplantation.
These UMass Boston students found their way into one of the world’s most prestigious labs thanks to Luhan Yang, a 2014 Forbes 30 under 30, who founded the company eGenesis. The company spun out of the lab of George Church at Harvard University and located at UMass Boston's Venture Development Center (VDC) in September 2014. The company’s mission is to transform xenotransplantation – transplanting organs from one species to another – into an everyday, lifesaving medical procedure.
Yang’s first request upon arriving at the VDC was for interns. College of Science and Mathematics Dean Andrew Grosovsky recommended George and Lesha. When eGenesis had to retreat back to the Church lab to complete the work that led to the Science publication, and which was needed to obtain private investment in eGenesis, Yang took the two interns with her and had them appointed as research fellows. And it's no surprise why.
“I worked very closely with Dr. Yang," George says. "She found me to be organized, reliable, and a hard worker. Thus, she quickly gave me responsibilities and I was up for the challenge. I worked very hard, even nights and weekends, to be able to produce the best work possible.”
Lesha adds: “Along with my teammates, we work very hard to find solutions knowing that one day they could make a difference in medicine and patient treatment. This is the most rewarding part of this experience.”
George and Lesha introduced Poci to Yang, who brought him on as a research assistant. George then encouraged Cortazio to apply for a 10-week summer undergraduate research internship for underrepresented students program offered by the Church lab, which she won.
This is a dream come true for George.
“Everyday as I walk along Louis Pasteur Avenue, I am amazed and grateful that I am part of the eGenesis team," she says. "I love the cutting-edge projects that truly make you think outside the box. Just before graduating, I took an Honors class called Invention and Innovation. One of the assignments was to choose an inventor of your choice. I chose Dr. George Church, so now to be working and learning in his lab is such a dream come true and an honor. I have this wonderful opportunity all thanks to UMass Boston and the VDC.”
George and Lesha are beneficiaries of the U.S. Dept. of Labor funded and City of Boston sponsored SCILS (Skilled Careers In Life Sciences Initiative) program, which prepares students to hit the ground running in startup companies. Their internships at eGenesis were funded by the Massachusetts Life Science Center’s Internship Challenge program.
This story was originally posted on the Venture Development Center website, and has been shortened. To read the full story, visit the VDC's blog.