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Synthetic biology researchers receive 2018 Massachusetts Life Science Innovation Day prize

Award recognizes TFome platform technology that enables rapid engineering of a broad spectrum of tissue-specific cell types

A Harvard research team has won second prize in the “Research Showcase – Poster Session” at the 2018 Massachusetts Life Science Innovation Day for its synthetic biology-driven approach to generating tissue-specific cell types from stem cells.

Parastoo Khoshakhlagh and Alex Ng, who presented the Wyss Institute’s TFome project to win the second prize at this year’s Massachusetts Life Science Innovation Day event, are shown here with Abi Barrow, Executive Director at Massachusetts Technology Transfer Center and Lucie Rochard, Manager of Innovation Services at MassBio. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

The award celebrates the region’s most promising fundamental research advances that may help define up-and-coming industries in the areas of biotech, medtech, and medical devices.

The Harvard team’s proposal was one of more than 300 entries into the competition and was presented at the event on May 31 by Parastoo Khoshakhlagh, Ph.D., and Alex Ng, Ph.D., postdoctoral researchers in George Church’s group at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. The project is being supported primarily by Harvard’s Blavatnik Biomedical Accelerator, through funding and strategic support to Prof. Church’s lab at HMS.

Recognized by the jury committee for its potential to broadly impact stem cell-based research and therapies, the ‘TFome’ project is a platform technology that can be flexibly tuned to rapidly engineer a broad spectrum of tissue-specific cell types.

To achieve this capability, the team’s approach leverages the entire complement of human transcription factors (TFs), the proteins that directly regulate the expression of genes required for the differentiation and function of a given cell type. Collectively, these are called the TFome. Having engineered a screening platform that allows the team to identify specific TF combinations within the TFome in cell cultures, the researchers can now program human pluripotent stem cells to develop the functional specificity of a mature cell type, with higher yields and much faster than most other differentiation methods are able to.

The Massachusetts Life Science Innovation Day, held at the Harvard Club in Boston, was developed by the Massachusetts Life Sciences Start-up Initiative (MALSI) as an annual conference that brings together scientific leaders, business experts, academics, policy makers, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists dedicated to maintaining the state’s position as a world leader in nurturing life sciences companies. The conference’s research showcase is driven by a recognition that fundamental research is the primary building block for technology-based and knowledge-based industries.

For this year’s event, 31 posters were pre-selected from the more than 300 entries in a committee review process. On the day itself, MALSI event attendees “invest” MALSI “money” in technologies presented on posters, and, finally, 5 winners that emerge from this public vote are judged by a group of more than 20 company CEOs invited by the MALSI committee.

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