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Prof maps genome & masters cool: AMA on Reddit, MIT Gangnam video, MOOC on biology

2:54 pm by | 0 Comments

If the founders of the Breakthrough Prize for Life Sciences want to make scientists cool, they made a smart choice in Eric Lander. Many MedCity News readers may know that Lander was a leader of the Human Genome Project and that he is president and founding director of the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT.


You may not know that he danced with Psy in the MIT Gangnam style video last fall and did an “Ask Me Anything” interview today on Reddit.

He also answered questions about the future of genetics, cancer treatment, and whether he would rather map the genome of 1 horse-sized duck or 100 duck sized horses. Lander said he has never had his genome sequenced and would not without a medical reason to do it.

Here are some of the best questions from the hour-long interview. Scroll down and skip to 1:41 to see his cameo in MIT Gangnam style.

Where do you think genetics will take us in about 10-20 years?

One amazing direction will be “synthetic biology.” The ability to write any DNA sequences you’d like — to create new genes, new genetic regulators, new genetic programs. It’ll be like writing software in DNA. (Instead of C++, we’ll have D++.) There will be tremendous opportunities for creativity (and some possibilities for abuse.)

Do you think the future of cancer therapies are going to be tailored genetic targeted pharmaceuticals e.g. crizotinib or more out of the box therapies such as viruses that target cancer cells/supped up white blood cells / etc.

Beating cancer is going to take combination therapy of several targeted therapies (drugs and others). If you just treat with one drug, there’s a good chance that a fraction of the cancer cells will be resistant (or develop resistance). If you treat with two therapies that act independently, the chance of resistance goes down (it’s the product of the two probabilities). If we can combine 3-4 therapies, the chance that a cancer will be able to escape will become vanishingly small. That’s actually what worked for HIV therapy (triple drug therapy). To make this work for cancer, we need a comprehensive roadmap of the mutations in cancers and their vulnerabilities. It will take a decade or more, but I think it’s the path to ultimately treating cancer.

Would you rather map the genome of 1 horse sized duck or 100 duck sized horses?

No contest: I’d rather map the genome of 100 duck-sized horses than 1 horse-sized duck! With 100, you get information about the population genetics. So you can learn cool things about why some of the duck-sized horses can fly better and others can run better. Can anyone online get us the DNA for this project?

As an advisor to the President, what is being done or do you think will be done to increase the attractiveness of students finishing PhD programs in science? A lot of my colleagues and acquaintances fear that earning a PhD in science is often not commensurate with the subsequent opportunities, and there seems to be little incentive to resolve this gap.

We need to shorten the time for getting a PhD and for a first faculty job. Young people should get out into the scientific world early, when they have lots of fresh ideas. We should encourage grants to young scientists and should encourage them to take big risks. When you’re taking big risks, science is amazingly fun.

What do you think is the most important project happening right now at the Broad?

Wow! It’s a long list, but some of the important ones: • Creating a comprehensive roadmap of cancer’s vulnerabilities • Understanding how to treat tuberculosis, an insidious organism • Understanding the molecular basis of psychiatric diseases • Developing general tools for reconstructing the “circuitry of cells” • Creating ways to develop effective and safe drugs much much faster. • Creating methods to edit the genome, to create disease models and for therapies. • And many more . . .

One Redditor asked for help understanding the basics of DNA, apologizing for the “lame” question.

Simple solution: Take my free online course starting on March 5 — on MIT/Harvard EdX platform. It’s got no prerequisites at all. It’s about the fundamental principles of biology, so you can understand the amazing things that are going on today.

Register for the course here.

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Veronica Combs

By Veronica Combs

I am the editor in chief at MedCityNews.com. I started writing and editing in the print world and joined a dotcom right before the 2000 crash. I was at TechRepublic/CNET/BNET for 7 years. Health was more interesting to me than the latest version of Windows, so I left for a startup tracking prescription drug news. A year later, MedTrackAlert was acquired by HealthCentral, so I shifted to audience research. The fun of daily news and interviewing smart people brought me to MedCity News in February 2012.
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