'It’s the Right Time' for Gene Editing Research: Lijia Ma

Jocelyn Eikenburg
29, 2022

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The mysteries of the human genome offer never-ending fascination for Lijia Ma, a principal investigator in the School of Life Sciences at Westlake University.

"It's very interesting that we can send humans to the moon, and sometime later we will even send people to Mars, but yet right now we don't really fully understand our own genome."

She has chosen to work in one of the frontiers of genetic research: gene editing. "My past knowledge and my skills are a perfect combination for doing research in this area. I was trained in multiple disciplines, and the methods and technologies being used [in gene editing] are pretty much the same."

Prof. Ma received her Ph.D. in the field of bioinformatics, relying on computer technology to decipher DNA sequences. However, she then broadened her expertise to encompass functional genomics, or the study of the function and expression of the genome, during her time as a postdoctoral fellow and later staff scientist at the University of Chicago. There, she participated in the National Institute of Health's ENCODE project -- which has a goal to create an "encyclopedia" of the human genome -- and her experience on the team yielded what she deems one of her greatest achievements.

"We established the most comprehensive map of the genome of the Drosophila fruit fly," which is frequently used as a model organism in genetics research. The highly cited paper reveals how many places in the genome are actually transcribed, as well as the characteristics those genes have for them to be transcribed. "I think the team did a great job on that. And now a lot of people rely on that work when they're doing studies with Drosophila."

Now she hopes to distinguish herself in gene editing, which she also considers a logical next direction for her research.

"I think science or technology has already pushed us to this point," emphasizing how gene editing has bloomed over the past decade. "It's the right time. We should start to think about how to edit our genome, rather than only think about how to read and interpret our genome.”

According to Prof. Ma, like books, which may on occasion have typographical errors in their pages, the human genome can also have mistakes in its sequence. "Unfortunately, some children are born with mistakes which are critical to their health."

In her lab, she is currently working with CRISPR technology to find more optimal ways to fix errors in human DNA, in an effort to help treat those with genetic disorders and other gene-related diseases, including certain forms of cancer.

"Right now, what I'm doing can actually help people, so that's the part I really love about my job," she says. "When you see those patients, and that, actually, what you are doing in the lab has big potential to help them, it's very exciting and you will be very motivated to try to do your work well."

Since 2018, Prof. Ma has belonged to the faculty of Westlake, which she describes as a very special institution. "The part I like about this university is that it has its own spirit, and you can see everyone is working in their own way to move toward the same goal."

In her laboratory, she promotes a multidisciplinary atmosphere for the students who do research with her. "I've benefited a lot from knowing both sides," she says, referring to the computational side of research, which she grasped through bioinformatics, as well as the more hands-on, experimental aspect, which she absorbed through functional genomics.

"So if you come to my lab as a researcher who is good at experiments, I hope you can learn how to do computer work in my lab. If you come to my lab as a computer scientist, I hope you can learn something about how to generate data through experiments."

In the future, she would like to touch and transform many more lives, beyond the walls of the laboratory, through her work. "I hope that…we can develop some gene therapy which can actually treat some human disease," which in her mind would be a "super" accomplishment. Otherwise, "I hope one of my students or one of my postdocs can do that."