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Great British bioscience pioneers – Professor Helen Sang

Great British bioscience pioneers – Professor Helen Sang - 22 July 2014. Copyright: Helen Sang
Highlights from: 20 years of bioscience

Continuing our series of articles on Great British bioscience pioneers, we profile the work of Professor Helen Sang, Personal Chair in Vertebrate Molecular Development at The Roslin Institute, which receives strategic funding from BBSRC.

Professor Sang's research has advanced our understanding of genetic modification techniques and developmental biology of vertebrates, as well as leading to new ways to produce medical compounds and the potential to improve the health of chickens, one of the world's most important protein sources.

Helen Sang in 1982. Copyright: Helen Sang
Helen Sang in 1982. Copyright: Helen Sang

How did your bioscience career first begin?

I studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge University, concentrating on Genetics in my final year. This was a great course as we covered genetics of everything from viruses and organelles through to populations.

My PhD was on the mechanism of genetic recombination in the lab of Harold Whitehouse, using spore colour mutants to study the outcomes of meiosis. Very boring lab work, but interesting theory! I wanted to study recombination at the molecular level and moved on to working with E. coli as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University.

What are you working on now?

We have developed technologies for genetic modification of the chicken that can be used to study both basic developmental biology of vertebrates, for which the chick embryo is an excellent model, and also have the potential to be used to add valuable traits (characteristics) to the chicken as a food animal; the traits we are most interested in are resistance to diseases that are a major health challenge to poultry. The advent of artificial site-specific nucleases (enzymes designed to cut DNA at sites we choose), will allow us to knock-out genes efficiently or make subtle changes to the chicken genome.

What advances have you seen in your chosen field in the last 20 years?

Development of tools for genetic modification of the chicken has been challenging, partly due to the development of the chicken embryo in a large, yolky egg, but also because few researchers work in this field. Our technological advances and those of a few other research groups now allow us to plan to use these tools in many ways, answering fundamental questions about embryo development and disease response in the chicken.

The chicken is rapidly becoming the main source of animal protein in the world, due to the advances in genetics and genomics and the acceptability of poultry products. The possibility of using genetic modification of the chicken to add valuable traits, that cannot be achieved by conventional breeding genetics, to commercial chickens is now being considered, for traits that will benefit both the welfare of the animals and reduce economic losses.

What are the 5 key bioscience milestones that you've been part of?

  • 1984 Member of a team that showed that a form of genetic sterility in fruit flies was due to activation of a mobile genetic element when two strains of flies were crossed. This type of "jumping gene" is now known to be present in many copies in the human genome.
  • 1994 Production of the first transgenic chickens using DNA microinjection
  • 2007 We developed an efficient method for making genetically modified chickens using gene transfer vectors originally developed for human gene therapy.
  • 2007 Demonstration that hens can be genetically-modified to produce valuable medicinal proteins in the white of their eggs, from which the proteins can be easily extracted.
  • 2011 In collaboration with Dr Laurence Tiley at Cambridge University we produced GM chickens that do not transmit bird flu, a step on the way to producing chickens resistant to bird flu infection

How has BBSRC supported you throughout your career?

I have been supported by the BBSRC and its predecessor research councils throughout most of my career. My PhD was carried out as a research assistant on an SERC (Science and Engineering Research Council) grant and I was awarded a SERC-NATO fellowship to go as a postdoc to the lab of Professor Matt Meselson at Harvard University. I returned to the UK with a MRC fellowship, to the Department of Molecular Biology at Edinburgh University. I was then appointed as a Group Leader at the AFRC (Agricultural and Food Research Council) Poultry Research Centre, which, after a few transformations, became The Roslin Institute with strategic funding from the BBSRC.

My research programme is funded by this strategic funding, plus BBSRC responsive mode grants, a Wellcome Trust grant and recently a collaboration funded by the MRC. The development of a challenging technology, genetic modification of the chicken, could only be carried out with the longer term support provided to The Roslin Institute by the BBSRC, and by access to the poultry facilities critical to this work.

Tags: 20 years of bioscience animal health food genetics nutrition pioneers The Roslin Institute feature