Indian-American genome researcher in New York gets multimillion ‘New Innovator’ award

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Professor Neville Sanjana, core faculty member at the New York Genome Center, assistant professor of biology, New York University, and assistant professor of neuroscience and physiology at NYU School of Medicine, with a Sanjana Lab team member. (Photo courtesy of the New York Genome Center)

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has selected the laboratory of Indian-American Neville Sanjana, an assistant professor in New York University’s Department of Biology and an assistant professor of neuroscience and physiology at NYU School of Medicine, for its “New Innovator” Award.

The Sanjana Lab uses advanced genome engineering and high-throughput sequencing to identify the sequences and proteins that govern gene expression. The grant will enable Sanjana, Core Faculty Member at the New York Genome Center, and his team to investigate the noncoding regions of the genome, which is 98 percent of the human genome, an Oct. 5, press release from New York University said.

The award of nearly $2.9 million over five years will support the Sanjana Lab’s work in deciphering the logic of gene regulation through the development of new tools for targeted, precise modifications to the genome. These new genome engineering methods include techniques for denser coverage of noncoding regions, scaling up genetic screens, building multidimensional readouts of noncoding function, and identifying the DNA-binding proteins that are found near functional elements.

Using this gene editing toolbox, the Sanjana Lab will test hypotheses that link sequence changes in noncoding regions to relevant biological phenotypes, such as therapeutic resistance in cancer and the development of cortical neurons during early embryogenesis, the press release said.

Sanjana’s father is from Mumbai and mother is from Jamshedpur, the New York Genome Center told Desi Talk.

In his proposal to the NIH, Sanjana described his long-term goal to construct a catalog of all functional elements in the noncoding genome and to map their interactions in healthy and disease states. His proposal leverages both established and newly-characterized CRISPR enzymes to build a platform for understanding how noncoding DNA and transcription factors come together in gene regulation. The CRISPR enzyme is described in Wikipedia, as a family of DNA sequences in bacteria that contains snippets of DNA from viruses that have attacked the bacterium.

According to Sanjana, “Although our research into the noncoding genome is rooted in basic science questions, the aim is to generate clinically relevant and actionable discoveries regarding cancer evolution and treatment, as we have done previously with functional screens in the coding genome.”

Sanjana has an interesting multidisciplinary background and has conducted some breakthrough research. As an undergraduate at Stanford University, he acquired degrees in English Literature and Symbolic Systems. During his junior and senior year, he worked in the laboratory of Dr. Joshua Tenenbaum conducting human subjects experiments and constructing Bayesian models of human learning.

When he began his graduate training in the Department of Brain & Cognitive Sciences at MIT, he wanted to learn neurophysiology and joined Dr. Sebastian Seung’s lab. After graduation, he met and joined Dr. Feng Zhang as his first postdoctoral fellow. His work led to an invitation from the U.S. Department of Energy to present this work to the Joint Genome Institute and to a gene therapy course in Portugal. In those first months, his molecular biology knowledge grew tremendously and his interest in bioengineering and synthetic biology blossomed, according to his biography on the New York Genome Center website.

“Our lab employs a multi-disciplinary approach, combining genome engineering, pooled genetic screens, molecular genomics, electrophysiology, and imaging, to dissect the inner workings of the human genome and to attack diseases like autism and cancer,” Sanjana says on his LinkedIn profile. “As molecular engineers, we are inspired by the natural world and use molecular cloning to harness these tools to tackle hard problems in biology,” Sanjana says. “Recently, we have developed technologies for high-throughput genome editing and functional genomic screens, including genome-wide loss-of-function screens in vitro and in vivo and scanning mutagenesis to identify functional elements in the noncoding genome,” he adds.

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