Tackling Tough Problems with the 23andMe Therapeutics Team

Kipper Fletez-Brant, a computational biologist with our Therapeutics division, thought he’d be a physicist someday.

Rising up in Phoenix, Arizona, Kipper escaped the warmth studying “hard-sci-fi novels” with mind-bending plots woven with at the moment understood science about issues like darkish matter, wormholes, and the bending of the space-time continuum.

“However I spotted sooner or later I favored dwelling issues and physics wasn’t the most effective match,” he mentioned.

Physics is usually known as the thinker’s science. So maybe it was applicable that as a substitute of a tough science, Kipper tackled different kinds of laborious questions and studied philosophy as an undergraduate at St. John’s Faculty.

After 4 years of wrestling with the everlasting questions of life, he wished one thing completely different.

“I wasn’t eager on the truth that there aren’t solutions in philosophy,” Kipper mentioned.

And that in flip motivated him to “take into consideration science once more.”

After commencement, whereas doing clerical work for an ophthalmologist, a physician who seen his aptitude and curiosity steered he take into account bioinformatics.

“I discovered that was a method to put math and biology collectively,” Kipper mentioned. “There was only one catch. I hadn’t studied both.”

It’s what motivated him to return to high school and break into the sphere. What adopted was a Masters in Biotechnology giving him crash programs in pc science and molecular biology. He went on to work in a genetics lab after which frolicked on the National Institutes of Health’s Vaccine Research Center, engaged on knowledge associated to vaccine trials. Work that he’s been fascinated about every day for the reason that pandemic.

“Our mission was to know, on a molecular degree, what modifications vaccines brought on, in order that we may make higher, more practical vaccines,” Kipper mentioned. 

The mission was essential however Kipper wished to guide analysis himself, and so he returned to high school, however this time for a Ph.D. in Human Genetics from the McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine at Johns Hopkins College’s Faculty of Medication and a Masters in Statistics from the Faculty of Public Well being.

Now three years into his work at 23andMe, Kipper is a crucial a part of the group of scientists and computational biologists in search of potential drug targets. One of many tasks that Kipper is engaged on is a analysis effort referred to as the Black Representation in Genomic Research Study (BRGR) through which scientists are finding out the genetics of gene expression with the purpose of enhancing range in biomedical analysis. Finally, the aggregated and de-identified RNA and whole-genome sequencing knowledge from the venture shall be made obtainable to certified researchers by way of the NIH’s dbGap. The hope is that it will help these growing more practical medication that may deal with circumstances and ailments affecting members of the Black neighborhood who’ve been underrepresented in conventional analysis.

It’s simply one in all many examples of what excites Kipper about working at 23andMe. For a scientist nonetheless fascinated by the potential of genetics to result in novel therapies, he mentioned being a part of 23andMe’s Therapeutics division gives uncommon alternatives.

The genetic and phenotypic knowledge at 23andMe is unparalleled,” Kipper mentioned. “There may be merely no different useful resource that compares to the 23andMe database when it comes to the size of phenotypes surveyed or measurement of the cohort.”

As a part of an occasional collection about scientists working at 23andMe, we sat down with Kipper to speak extra about computational biology, 23andMe, and what it’s like being a scientist in 23andMe’s Therapeutics division.

The place did you develop up?

I grew up in Phoenix, AZ. I keep in mind when it hit 122F within the early 90s. It grounded airplanes, many individuals had heatstroke. We didn’t have AC on the time, so my mother sprayed us with the hose (this motivated my dad and mom to get AC)

What did you examine as an undergrad?

I studied philosophy at St. John’s Faculty, a small liberal arts school in Annapolis, Maryland. (It’s instantly throughout the road from america Naval Academy).

Did you all the time need to be a scientist?

Intermittently. As a toddler, I assumed I’d need to do physics as a result of I learn quite a lot of “laborious” sci-fi the place they talked concerning the physics of issues like area journey. However I spotted sooner or later I favored dwelling issues and physics wasn’t the most effective match. I did philosophy as a result of at the very least I thought of tough issues lots, however I wasn’t eager on the truth that there aren’t solutions in philosophy, which motivated me to consider science once more.

Was your curiosity impressed by an individual or a e book or an expertise?

After undergrad, I used to be working as an administrative assistant in a North Baltimore suburb for an ophthalmology workplace, and one of many medical doctors informed me I ought to take a look at bioinformatics. I discovered that was a method to put math and biology collectively. The catch was I hadn’t studied both. However that motivated me to go searching for methods to interrupt into the sphere.

Why did you get two grasp’s levels (in Statistics and Biotechnology) and was there one thing that modified to immediate you to get your Ph.D. in human genetics?

I one way or the other talked my method into my first masters, in Biotechnology at St. Johns, regardless of having a level in philosophy and no scientific coaching. I used to be basically making up for misplaced time. I studied pc science and molecular biology throughout this diploma, whereas additionally interning as a laboratory technician in a molecular genetics lab. It actually set me up for fulfillment, and after graduating I took a job as an information analyst on the Nationwide Institutes of Well being’s (NIH) Vaccine Analysis Middle, primarily engaged on datasets that got here from contributors in vaccine trials. Our mission was to know, on a molecular degree, what modifications vaccines brought on in order that we may make higher, more practical vaccines.

Why did you allow the NIH?

Whereas the NIH was an important job with actually sensible folks, I knew I wished to guide analysis tasks, and I didn’t have the coaching for that. I additionally missed working in genetics and genomics, and so I enrolled within the Human Genetics program on the McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medication on the Johns Hopkins College Faculty of Medication. Whereas there, I knew I wanted severe coaching in statistics to match the organic coaching from my Ph.D. program, so I did my Ph.D. work with Kasper Hansen, a professor within the Division of Biostatistics within the Faculty of Public Well being, and in addition did a grasp’s diploma in biostatistics. As well as, I used to be a fellow of the Maryland Genetics, Epidemiology and Medication (MD-GEM) coaching program, the place I additionally educated in genetic epidemiology. 

What are the sorts of questions or issues you want to review?

I actually like tough issues that don’t have clear solutions and make you suppose in a number of disciplines directly. On the NIH, I developed a instrument for doing high quality management of vaccine knowledge that makes use of statistical ideas sometimes utilized in geology. Whereas a Ph.D. pupil, I labored on statistical strategies to seek out genetic variants that affect what 3D construction DNA truly takes when it’s in a cell.

What attracted you to working for 23andMe’s Therapeutics group?

On the NIH I used to be working very intently with scientific analysis, and I knew that after my Ph.D. I wished to return to extra translational work. 23andMe, the place every part is predicated on genetics, was a pure selection for me. And so far, I’ve used each a part of my coaching, from molecular genetics to epidemiology to statistics, to reply questions on find out how to take our genetic findings and determine drug targets utilizing them. 

Might you clarify a bit of bit about your job analyzing practical genomics knowledge and the way it performs a job in characterizing potential drug targets?

At 23andMe, every part we do begins with genetics.  We all know which genetic variants are related to which ailments. The issue is that realizing that some genetic variant is related to a illness typically tells you nothing about how the variant causes illness, nor what you may do about it. The Computational Biology group helps generate concepts about how ailments are brought on by genetic variation, and which genes could be good drug targets, by utilizing our genetic knowledge along with different organic knowledge, such because the gene expression profiling we did within the BRGR examine. Particularly, we frequently ask questions on whether or not specific variants have an effect on the expression or perform of attainable goal genes — possibly a selected gene is over-expressed in some ailments with an unmet medical want, for instance.

What is exclusive about working at 23andMe both when it comes to the form of knowledge you’re working with or the tradition?

The genetic and phenotypic knowledge at 23andMe is unparalleled. There may be merely no different useful resource that compares to the 23andMe database when it comes to the size of phenotypes surveyed or the scale of the cohort. Many GWAS that we run yield indicators seen in no different cohort. On this context, drug growth could be very thrilling, in that find out how to use genetic data to hone in on a drug goal is a subject of lively analysis locally. 23andMe Therapeutics is breaking floor on laborious questions and is likely one of the leaders on this area.

How is what you’re doing now completely different from what you have been doing at St. Johns, or completely different from different jobs you’ve had?

My function at 23andMe is nearer to the drug/therapeutic growth course of than another job I’ve had, which was an enormous draw for me, to be sincere. At Johns Hopkins, I labored on questions that have been targeted on understanding primary biology, and on the NIH I used to be downstream of the event course of. Right here I’m actively serving to the Therapeutics group discover new targets.

What are your hopes for the work you’re doing?

I’m optimistic that we are going to discover “the most effective” method to make use of genetics to tell drug discovery. Our complete dataset permits us to focus on all kinds of ailments, and I’m hopeful we will make an affect on a lot of them and the lives of individuals dwelling with these ailments.

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