Owens of Big Island secures $ 2.3 million grant for genetic therapy research


Jesse Owens was only 17 years old when he decided to devote his life to research in gene therapy.

Today, the youngest full-time faculty member at the Biogenesis Research Institute at the John A. Burns School of Medicine, Owens – who grew up in Keaukaha – works to make gene therapy more safe with the help of funding from the National Institutes of Health.

In his final year of high school, the Hilo High 2003 graduate, now 36, sailed around the world taking lessons aboard a sailboat as part of a study program.

It was then that Owens became interested in the idea of ​​adding new genes to a genome.

“I was really interested in the idea that you could pass a gene on to an animal, be it a mouse, a pig or a person. … I thought it was really cool, something that could be a very powerful tool.

He received his BA in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology from the University of California at Santa Cruz and received a PhD in Cellular and Molecular Biology from the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 2014.

At UH-Manoa, he was able to work with Dr Stefan Moisyadi, a specialist in transgenic mice.

“So from there I kind of refocused my focus on making sure that when you deliver a gene to a person or an organism, the gene enters safely and not at random,” he said. -he declares. “He’s going to a specific place.”

Owens recently received $ 2.3 million over the next five years from NIH to develop a new, safer tool for gene therapy.

Gene therapy delivers a gene to a person to replace a mutated or broken gene to cure a genetic disease, Owens explained.

According to a press release from UH, the grant addresses the drawbacks of current genome editing technologies that randomly insert a therapeutic gene.

Sometimes this randomly inserted gene can disrupt other genes, which could lead to cancer, Owens explained.

Currently, the process is not considered very safe and is only used on terminal illnesses, he said, but one of his main goals is to make gene therapy less risky, “then d ‘use gene therapy to treat more diseases’.

By the end of five years, Owens said he hoped he had developed a new tool to deliver large chunks of DNA to a specific place in the genome and nowhere else.

“The genome we have is capable of making every protein in our body,” he said. “So the ability to bring in new pieces of DNA gives us a lot of power because we are able to potentially correct any genetic disease. So we are not talking about curing a disease with this tool. You may be able to cure all genetic diseases. … So by making a tool you kind of have a bigger impact than if I were studying a disease.

Owens shares his alma mater with biochemist Jennifer Doudna, a 1981 Hilo High School graduate and professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who, along with her research partner Emmanuelle Charpentier, a French microbiologist, received the award. Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2020 for their development. of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing tool.

“I feel like the people of Hilo often think they don’t have as many opportunities, and I think Jennifer Doudna is an example of why that’s not true,” Owens said.

“Not only is he a professor here, he got his (doctorate) here, he was trained here, he grew up on the Big Island,” said Dr Steven Ward, director of the UH Institute for Biogenesis Research, in the press release. “It is the product of it, and it just shows you that Hawaii can do some of the greatest biomedical research in the world.”

In addition to NIH funding, Owens recently signed a sponsored research agreement with a private company called SalioGen Therapeutics, which specializes in non-viral gene therapies, UH said. The objective of this collaboration is to develop the tools that Owens is developing in the laboratory towards candidates for gene therapy at the clinical stage.

Owens is the son of David Owens of Keaukaha and Peach McGuffey of Puna.

Email Stephanie Salmons at [email protected]


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