Thriving on science: in depth with Jason Lieb

Jason Lieb likes to mix it up. A triathlete, he enjoys running, swimming and cycling. In his lab, he works in several model systems: yeast, round worms (C. elegans), fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) and human cell lines.

Typically, a lab works in one model system, but working in multiple systems, he explains, give him the opportunity to conduct experiments in one system and then, if successful, to move the results to another. “There are many examples of techniques discovered in yeast that are essential in cancer biology today. Using yeast is really critical for developing these basic techniques as a “playground” for ideas that we can move forward into other systems.”

His lab aims to understand a very basic unsolved problem in biology: how do proteins that interact with DNA find their proper targets in living cells? The DNA sequence information in the human genome is read and interpreted by proteins. Without interactions between proteins and DNA, life would not exist. His lab studies how proteins are directed to specific parts of the genome so that they can do their specific job. Using molecular technologies, they can determine the location of thousands of protein-DNA interactions in a single experiment. They then use these data to reconstruct the rules that proteins used to find out where it was supposed to go. Their studies may lead to better predictions of where defective proteins that cause cancer bind to the genome.

Dr. Lieb is director of the Carolina Center for Genome Sciences, created in 2001 to make significant advances in basic genomic research, as well as translate these discoveries to improving healthcare, education and society. As the Center’s second director after Dr. Terry Magnuson, now vice dean for research in the UNC School of Medicine, he wants to build on what Magnuson established by making technologies accessible to the clinic, understanding individual genomes and how the individual differences from person to person affect their propensity for disease and how they’re treated for disease. “The role of the center is to develop tools and techniques that are going to be ready for the clinic in 10 years,” Dr. Lieb explains.

The Center will be helped in its mission with the completion of the new Genome Science Center that will house new sequencing and microscopy technology as well as a diverse mix of scientists. “We’re hoping that the mix of expertise and technology all together in the one building will lead the way to the next 10 years of genome science and that a synergy will develop among scientists in the new building and across campus.”

Dr. Lieb describes the University Cancer Research Fund as a vital catalyst both for UNC’s national prominence in genetics and for his own research. “I received a UCRF seed grant for a project with Dr. Ian Davis that has gone on to attract many times the amount of funding from the initial seed grant.“ Davis is a pediatric oncologist and scientist who is partnering with Dr. Lieb on a project involving Ewing Sarcoma, a malignant bone and soft tissue tumor of children and young adults. They published their findings of how a gene associated with the cancer alters the way DNA is packaged in cells and leads to cancer and are now working with UNC drug discovery scientists to develop a drug that targets the aberrant gene.

“UCRF has helped many UNC scientists through the purchase of high-throughput DNA sequencing machines and the accompanying computational capacity and personnel. We are now able to do many experiments that were not possible before.”

Dr. Lieb has been honored for his research at the local and national level as a Hettleman Prize winner and a V Foundation Scholar. The Hettleman Prize for Artistic and Scholarly Achievement by Young Faculty is an annual award given to outstanding UNC faculty while the V Foundation Scholar grant, named in memory of NCSU men’s basketball coach Jim Valvano, is a national honor.

Dr. Lieb credits his mentors for shaping his practice of science and his career. “At UNC, biology professor Pat Pukkila, my undergraduate professor, taught me how to do basic laboratory techniques and how to care about the problem you’re studying. At Berkeley, during my doctoral training, Barbara Meyer, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, taught me the importance of being rigorous and precise and that no detail is too small, advice that has served me well. At Stanford, during my postdoctoral fellowship, Patrick Brown, also a member of the Academy, and a trained pediatrician with an active lab, had diverse interests. His motto was always ‘charge ahead.’ He was very freewheeling in his interests and intellectual endeavors. That’s one of the reasons my lab is all over the place in terms of model systems.”

After being in California for eight years, Jason was drawn back to Chapel Hill. “It was one of the few places in the country where I knew that the quality of science was very high and the quality of life was very high. It’s a great place for my family and for my career.”

In his chosen environment, Dr. Lieb thrives on science. “There are so many questions, and how do you choose among all the questions, and narrow them down to what’s interesting and what’s soluble? You’re always pushing the edge of what’s possible in an experiment to try to answer the question that’s been a big roadblock in the field. You really want your questions to be at the interface of what’s interesting and what’s possible. That’s what you try to do.”

Filed under: ,