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26 Sep 2018

Stanford cellular genomics expert spends time at Garvan

Professor Hanlee Ji spent two months at Garvan, exploring and developing a shared vision for the future of single-cell sequencing technology.

This winter, Garvan was delighted to host Professor Hanlee Ji -- Senior Associate Director of the Stanford Genome Technology Center -- on sabbatical from Stanford University’s Department of Medicine.

A shared vision for the future

Prof Ji’s visit to Garvan has marked the next step in an evolving collaborative partnership with Associate Professor Joseph Powell, head of the Garvan-Weizmann Centre for Cellular Genomics.

“Over the years, I’ve become more and more aware of Garvan’s genomics capacity, and Joseph has spoken very highly and excitedly about Garvan,” says Prof Ji. “Being here has been such a great opportunity to get a sense of the research strengths and capabilities of Garvan. I’ve been so impressed by the ongoing scientific research, and the amazing infrastructure here.”

For Prof Ji and A/Prof Powell their successful collaboration stems from a shared vision of where cellular genomic technology is heading, and a belief in its potential.

“We have very similar perspectives on where single cell sequencing technology will lead and what will be its impact on biomedical research and clinical care,” says Prof Ji. “From our very first conversation it was clear that we were on very similar paths, even though our training and our backgrounds are significantly different.”

A/Prof Powell agrees. “We have very similar philosophical perspectives around this technology and we both like taking risks in scientific research.”

A new approach to understanding stomach cancer

A/Prof Powell and Prof Ji took advantage of Prof Ji’s time in Sydney to make progress on some joint projects, and plant the seeds for several more.

Their progress already demonstrates the gains to be made from collaborations that transfer cutting-edge, new technologies across borders. Prof Ji, a medical oncologist and clinical geneticist specialising in gastrointestinal cancers, is working with A/Prof Powell to more accurately define the different kinds of cells within stomach tumours.

“Traditional methods of defining cell types by specific marker genes have limitations, and sometimes can’t resolve subtle changes -- like healthy epithelial [stomach lining] cells vs tumour epithelial cells, which have been notoriously impossible to distinguish. Joseph has a remarkable way of distinguishing between cell types within a tumour, which we have been testing on some of our datasets,” says Prof Ji.

“My lab has developed mathematical models, using machine learning techniques, for predicting individual cell types very accurately,” adds A/Prof Powell. “It’s difficult to discover what’s driving a cancer when you have normal cells and tumour cells all mixed together. Now we can do single-cell sequencing to identify and subdivide all the different types of cells.”

And this could mean important changes on the horizon for the treatment of cancers.

“Cellular genomic technology has the power to fast track precision medicine in cancer,” explains Prof Ji. “By identifying the specific subtype of gastric cancer, or of any cancer, you can start to explore therapeutic options based on a tumour cell subtype rather than treating all gastric cancers the same way.”

The power of collaboration

The transfer of technological advances is going both ways.

“My lab is heavily involved in the development of high-throughput single cell DNA sequencing technology,” says Prof Ji, “and we have ideas about how that could be used to do population-based genetic studies. Joseph and I are mapping out a strategy to use this on some of our existing datasets, and test some of these ideas.”

Both Prof Ji and A/Prof Powell hope that their ongoing and expanding list of joint projects will continue to support a bigger collaborative relationship and a closer engagement between Garvan and Stanford.

“It’s been a pleasure having Prof Ji with us” says Garvan Chief Scientific Officer, Professor Marie Dziadek, “and fostering these collaborative relationships is an important part of building a thriving international scientific community, so we look forward to continued work with Prof Ji and Stanford.”

Australian science on the cutting edge

Prof Ji had the chance to engage closely with the Australian cellular genomics community at July’s OzSingleCell conference – and it made a big impact.

“At OzSingleCell, it was great to the see the enthusiasm and the calibre of science being done at the Garvan and at other institutions across Australia” concluded Prof Ji. “To see Australians so readily embrace these new technologies, and to see such scientific productivity has been a confirmation that we are moving in the right direction.”