2021 VBC PhD Symposium – Meet the “Out of the Box” Awardee

The 2021 VBC PhD Symposium brought three out of five awards to IMBA! These include two VBC PhD Awards as well as the new Out of the Box Award. We conducted a Q&A session with our three IMBA awardees to learn about their projects, ideas, and plans. Here, we present our “Out of the Box” Award recipient, Jamie Littleboy!

Jamie Littleboy, recipient of the first Out of the Box Award

Congratulations, dear Jamie, on receiving the first Out of the Box Award! Please tell me about your scientific question and how you aim on addressing it.

JL: Thanks, Daniel! The genetic differences that I seek to recreate in stem cells for my PhD project are highly specific. This makes the project pretty challenging since the main approach that is currently being used to this end is inefficient and error prone. Hence, I seized the opportunity of the “Out of the Box” question to suggest applying a few technologies that have been developed in the last couple of years. These will allow me to generate cell lines harboring very precise changes in their genome on a large scale, in a more efficient way, and without unwanted off target effects. Ultimately, applying these methods to generate engineered stem cells would be greatly beneficial for my project and research group, since they are a fantastic tool to model hundreds of conditions, including brain development. In the scope of the “Out of the Box” competition however, I seek to focus on setting the method up in a cell line that would probably be easier to work with but still holds some biological significance. Therefore, I will be applying this method to create cells containing genetic mutations that are known to cause treatment resistance in lung cancer. These cells can be used to understand why specific drugs no longer show an effect, and whether there are other drugs that could still show promising results.

Beyond the relevance for your PhD project and research group, is there a broader goal that drove you to come up with this “Out of the Box” question? If so, what would you hope to achieve by this?

JL: Absolutely. A large focus in our lab, as well as in research groups around the world, has been in screening the effect of destroying the function of many genes at once in different cells. It is a great way to study the role of many genes that we know all contribute to a particular condition simultaneously. But only about half of all genetic diseases are caused by complete loss of gene function, the other half are a result of specific, single base pair changes. I really wanted to find a way to use this approach of screening many genes at once, but for the more elusive mutations, the ones that require precise changes to be made. Unfortunately, there is no method that would allow us to create such precise changes on a scale large enough to study more than just a few at a time. I was quite determined to figure out a way to do this, and fortunately I came up with a method that might work. Hence, my “Out of the Box” question could have a broad impact on the scientific community at large.

On research at IMBA and the VBC

Jamie highly praises the work environment and life on campus. He talks about the unique possibilities to do science in a vibrant and multidisciplinary research environment: “I find the inter-institute community around IMBA and the VBC fantastic for providing inspiration to spark new ideas and collaborations. It was during a talk by the IMP Group Leader Anna Obenauf that I had the idea which formed the basis of my “Out of the Box” solution. I have heard other similar examples on campus, so clearly, we are in a great environment for fostering new and creative science. With this elaborate research infrastructure in place, it becomes easier for us to nurture commitment to following through and realizing those ideas.

Jamie comes from Sydney, Australia, and acquired his BSc (Hons) from the Charles Perkins Centre at The University of Sydney, where he also worked as a Research Assistant before joining IMBA.