In this Cell & Gene Therapy TIN interview as part of the Early Career Innovators series, recognising the amazing translational work being done by postdoc and non-tenured researchers within the UCL Therapeutic Innovation Networks (TINs), Dr Rajeev Rai highlights his Cell & Gene Therapy TIN Pilot Data Fund awarded project, involving hematopoietic stem cell gene editing to correct platelet defects in Wiskott Aldrich Syndrome (WAS).
What does your Cell & Gene Therapy TIN project involve?
Wiskott Aldrich Syndrome (WAS) is an X-linked recessive primary immunodeficiency disease characterised with severe, persistent, and life-threatening bleeding complications. This is caused by a genetic mutation in the WAS gene, which encodes a mutated WAS protein (WASp) leading to defective functional platelets. Without definitive treatment, the prognosis for this disease remains extremely poor. This is what my TIN funded project, which is titled “Correction of platelet defects in a Wiskott Aldrich Syndrome (WAS) humanized mouse model by hematopoietic stem cell gene editing”, aims to critically address.
We seek to investigate whether our recently established targeted genome editing platform could repair the mutated WAS gene and functionally correct platelet thrombocytopenia in humanised WAS mouse model. Our final goal is to translate this approach to human Haemopoietic Stem Cells (HSCs) harvested from WAS patients, which will be corrected ex vivo and re-infused intravenously following autologous transplantation protocols.
What is the motivation behind your project/therapeutic?
HSCs transplantation remains the definitive cure for WAS. However, lack of suitable matched donor accompanied by development of graft vs host disease has caused significant morbidities and mortalities. Although autologous HSCs gene therapy provides an attractive option, the use of lentivirus is associated with unregulated transgene expression and risk of insertional oncogenesis. Hence, a paramount urgency is required to develop an alternative yet safe gene correction strategy to cure WAS and associated platelet defects permanently.
Can you highlight any challenges have you experienced as an early career researcher in the cell and gene therapy/translational research space?
With a solid background in Immunology and Biochemistry, initial move into the field of cell and gene therapy was slightly challenging during the early stage of my research career. But having great mentors and colleagues in the department from whom I have learned enormous amount of molecular genomics and bioinformatics skills have tremendously aroused my interest in this field of translational research.
Why did you want to apply to the Cell & Gene Therapy TIN Pilot Data Fund?
My previously completed project revealed the superiority of site-specific CRISPR/Cas9 editing over traditional gene therapy approach to rescue not just immune cells but also the defective WAS platelets in vitro (Rai et al., 2020). To extend such finding, I was planning to apply for various career development fellowship and larger grants. However, I realised I had to demonstrate some proof-of-concept in vivo translational data to support my hypothesis beforehand. And this is precisely what the Cell & Gene Therapy TIN Pilot Data Fund has helped me to do, and I would like to thank the UCL Translational Research Group for providing advice and immense support throughout the application process.
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How did you find the process for the TIN Pilot Data Fund?
I thoroughly enjoyed the application process from start to finish including the dragon den pitching event, in which the ACCELERATE pitch training workshop helped me to prepare.
Sign up to the current open ACCELERATE training opportunity – ACCELERATE Potential, an online, self-paced translational training programme to help you learn the basics in translational research.
What do you hope to achieve in the 6 months duration of your project?
The wealth of data generated from this TIN funding will define for the very first time the optimum fraction of gene edited HSCs required to functionally correct WAS platelet defect in a humanised mouse model without any side effects. This would enable the project to be more attractive to major translational follow-on funding and to industry engagement.
About Dr Rajeev Rai
Dr Rajeev Rai is a research fellow in UCL GOS Institute of Child Health.
His primary research lies in the development and application of novel gene editing and gene therapy technologies for the treatment of various haematological disorders.