It is with great pleasure that we introduce to you our 2021 selections of Pioneers Under 40—scientists and businesspeople under the age of 40 who are making significant contributions in advancing precision medicine. While there are undoubtedly scores of other researchers and scientists not on this list that could qualify, our intention was not necessarily to highlight the household names in the field, rather to shine a light on the efforts of some that have may flown under the radar.
Chosen via nominations from our editorial advisor board and in-house editors, that’s not to say our roster of four women and four men lacks star power. Stanford’s Le Cong is already a leading light in the CRISPR world and counts Feng Zhang, George Church, and Aviv Regev as mentors, while on the other side of the Atlantic, Greg Findlay parlayed his postdoc in the lab of Jay Shendure into a plum position as Group Leader in the Genome Function Lab at the Francis Crick Institute. Also featured in this year’s list are Alice Zhang, who left her M.D./Ph.D. program to launch Verge Genomics and serve as its CEO, and Amy Franzen, a former business analyst who took the lessons learned there to lead the innovative TIME clinical trials program at Tempus.
Congratulations to all our pioneers.
The Broad Institute | Age: 32
Viktor Adalsteinsson, Ph.D., is the associate director of the Gerstner Center for Cancer Diagnostics at the Broad Institute. He also leads the Blood Biopsy Team, which includes scientists, engineers, oncologists, and computational biologists spanning numerous investigators and labs at the Broad Institute, MIT, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Massachusetts General Hospital, and others.
Adalsteinsson says that he was drawn to this area of research as it could improve the clinical care of potentially millions of patients, all from one simple blood draw.
The goal of his lab’s research is to identify mechanisms of response and resistance to therapy, enable routine monitoring of patients with cancer, and ultimately provide a mechanism for early detection of cancer.
In addition to his lab’s work in liquid biopsy for detection of cancer, his team is also exploring how to apply the method to different types of human disease and have identified collaborators who could likely provide samples from patients with Alzheimer’s disease, kidney disease, and multiple sclerosis. In parallel, as a set of reference controls, the lab is examining the DNA in the blood of several healthy individuals.
Adalsteinsson holds a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from MIT, where he studied in the laboratory of J. Christopher Love. At MIT he developed novel approaches for functional and genomic profiling of single cells in cancer. Adalsteinsson retains an affiliation with the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT. He has contributed to more than 14 publications and five patents, with 500 citations in the fields of cancer biology, genomics, and biotechnology. Adalsteinsson was previously honored by MIT Technology Review in 2017 as a visionary member of its 35 Innovators Under 35.
Iowa State University | Age: 38
Robbyn K. Anand, Ph.D., is the Suresh Faculty Fellow at Iowa State University where she joined the Department of Chemistry as an Assistant Professor in August 2015.
Her lab is developing an all-in-one platform that accomplishes marker-free selection of circulating tumor cells (CTCs) from blood and isolates them in reaction chambers for parallel analysis. Anand and her team are developing their platform for ease of use and one that doesn’t rely on highly specialized equipment. The technology also integrates electric field-based pre-enrichment of cancer biomarkers with label-free electrochemical sensing for point-of-care diagnosis.
To bridge the gap between innovation and clinical use, Anand recently founded Nernst Diagnostics. “The overarching goal of my research program is to broaden access to precision medicine,” she says. “An essential part of that endeavor is translation of the technologies that we develop.”
Anand earned her Ph.D. in 2010 from the University of Texas at Austin under Prof. Richard M. Crooks, from whom she learned the valuable lesson of the constant pursuit of personal improvement. After receiving her Ph.D., she moved to the University of Washington for her postdoc under Daniel T. Chiu.
Anand is also passionate about the retention and advancement of underrepresented groups in the chemical enterprise, so she founded the annual Midwest Retreat for Diversity in Chemistry. She is the recipient of Cottrell Scholar, NSF CAREER, NIH Trailblazer, and 3M Non-Tenured Faculty awards. In 2021, she was recognized with the Pittsburgh Conference Achievement Award, the Satinder Ahuja Award for Young Investigators in Separation Science, and the Royce W. Murray Young Investigator Award.
Stanford School of Medicine | Age: 34
Le Cong, Ph.D., is currently leading a group at Stanford School of Medicine to pursue technology for genome editing and single-cell genomics, using computational approaches inspired by data science. His group has a focus on applying these tools in neuroscience, immunology, and infectious diseases. He notes that he and his team are driven to continue unlocking the secrets of the human genome.
“The realization that we know little about our own genome from clinical perspective has been a big motivation for my group’s work and collaborative activity,” Cong says. “Much is still needed to find diagnostics, treatment—and hopefully one day prevention—for diseases with clear evidence that they run in families. Examples include allergy (food allergy, hay fever) and brain/psychiatric disorders. We need to bring scientists and clinicians together now.”
While he is not trained as a physician, Cong says he is excited about making real-world impacts with genome technologies, which is what led him to join the departments of pathology and genetics at Stanford School of Medicine. Like many doing cutting-edge research, Cong is involved in start-ups such as CureGenetics, following in the footsteps many of his past mentors who are pioneers in moving discoveries from the lab to helping patients, especially Feng Zhang, George Church, and Aviv Regev—who just moved to Roche Genentech.
Cong is an awardee of the NIH Genomic Innovator Award and Baxter Foundation Faculty Scholar. He was a Howard Hughes Medical Institute International Fellow, a Cancer Research Institute Irvington Fellow, and was selected for the Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia list, MIT TechReview TR35 China, and “Top 10 under 40” by GEN.
Georgia Tech and Emory School of Medicine | Age: 34
James Dahlman, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory School of Medicine. The Dahlman lab works at the interface of drug delivery, genomics, and gene editing by applying big data and ‘technology development’ approaches to nanomedicine. Students in the lab have developed DNA barcoded nanoparticles to measure how hundreds of nanoparticles deliver mRNA and siRNA in multiple cell types in vivo, all from a single animal.
Since 2016, the lab has used DNA barcoding to quantify more than 4,500 nanoparticles in vivo, thereby identifying nanoparticles that deliver RNA to new cell types without targeting ligands. His lab uses these approaches to improve cell type-specific gene therapy targeting and identify genes acting as master regulators of nanoparticle delivery in vivo.
“My research focuses on one goal—to deliver non-viral gene therapies to non-liver tissues,” he says. This is the focus of his Georgia Tech lab, as well as Guide Therapeutics, a startup he co-founded with Cory Sago, sold recently to Beam Therapeutics.
“I love this work for two reasons,” he continues. “First, drug delivery is incredibly interesting from a scientific standpoint, given that you must simultaneously solve challenges in chemistry, biology, nanotechnology, and genetics. Second, if you safely deliver drugs to even one non-liver tissue, you position yourself to help patients suffering from many distinct diseases.”
Dahlman has published in multiple high-impact journals. Dahlman has won multiple awards including the Rita Schaffer Award, ASGCT Outstanding New Investigator Award, GT Outstanding Achievement in Early Career Research Award, Tech Review TR35, Controlled Release Society GDGE Award, had his barcoding work described as a Top 10 Emerging Technology by the World Economic Forum, and has won multiple young investigator awards.
The Francis Crick Institute | Age: 34
Greg Findlay, M.D., Ph.D., is the group leader of the Genome Function Lab at the Francis Crick Institute, London. In his lab, researchers seek to better understand which genetic variants predispose people to disease and why this happens on the molecular level. To do this, Findlay and his associates are developing methods to systematically edit the human genome at scale, to engineer all possible variants in human genes linked to disease, as wells as to mutate hundreds of thousands of regions across the genome to test which are likely to cause disease.
While Findlay says he has had many mentors throughout the years, the experience most influential on his career has been his work in the lab of Jay Shendure at the University of Washington, where he earned his Ph.D. There was a “spirit of innovation and creativity” among those working in the lab that he hopes to foster in his own lab at the Crick.
Findlay’s work leverages the power of CRISPR gene editing to allow him and his team to study thousands of rare mutations in tumor suppressor genes. They also explore genetic mechanisms of disease at single-base resolution, while creating innovative ways to generate as much information from a single experiment as possible.
The knowledge gained in his lab has the potential to be massively valuable in cancer research. And working with clinicians, this new knowledge helps to identify people that have an extremely high risk of developing cancer, allowing for very early interventions.
“We’ve entered into this golden age of opportunity concerning genomic data, but we’re still far from maximizing the impact it can have on patient care,” he says. “What makes our work unique and particularly worthwhile to me is that what we learn in lab about these mutations can have a direct and immediate impact on patient care.”
Tempus | Age: 35
Amy Franzen is the vice president of operations at burgeoning precision medicine company Tempus, where she oversees the strategy and operations for Tempus’ Therapies business. In this capacity, Franzen developed the TIME Trial Program, an initiative that brings biomarker-targeted oncology clinical trials to the right patients in a diverse network of pre-qualified research institutions.
Franzen joined Tempus from McKinsey where she was a business analyst, an experience she says is paying significant dividend in her current position. “At McKinsey, I quickly learned how to create frameworks to solve problems, regardless of the industry or vertical. That foundation has helped me quickly apply more general principles to the very specific precision medicine space,” she says.
While migrating from a business consulting gig to a leadership position at one of the top precision medicine companies may seem incongruous, like the company CEO Eric Lefkofsky, the connection for Franzen is direct and personal.
“I, like most, have a personal connection to cancer and I felt that my background in business and tech—despite it being well outside the medical and scientific space—could provide a fresh and important perspective on one of the most meaningful problems in the world,” Franzen says. “With the TIME Trial Program, specifically, the opportunity to democratize access to healthcare felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
In addition to her work at McKinsey, Franzen was also the strategy director of Nike Digital and held various leadership positions at another company started by Lefkofsky, Groupon.
Katherine Siddle, Ph.D.
Harvard University and the Broad Institute | Age:34
Katherine Siddle, Ph.D., “Katie” to those who know her, is a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University and the Broad Institute who credits a gift from her grandfather when she was 12—a subscription to National Geographic—with fueling her scientific curiosity.
Her research interests lie at the intersection of genomics, computational biology, and global health, including the genomic epidemiology of emerging infections, host-pathogen interaction, and the etiology of undifferentiated fevers. She combines developing methods to improve the detection and assembly of viral genomes and contribute to the enhancement of surveillance for emerging infections, with a particular focus on West Africa. Siddle’s accomplishment include benchmarking computational tools for taxonomic classification, developing and validating a novel software to design optimized probe sets for targeted enrichment of diverse viral sequences, and co-leading a study of the genomic epidemiology of the 2018 Lassa virus outbreak in Nigeria. Siddle also played a critical role in performing SARS-CoV-2 genomic surveillance in Massachusetts.
Siddle obtained her Ph.D. in human immunogenomics from the Institut Pasteur and the Université Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris, France, under Lluis Quintana-Murci. Siddle then decided to change perspectives.
“Viral genomes present many fascinating contrasts to human genomes. In particular, viral genomes change relatively quickly and so we can look at much shorter timescales and use these changes, like a fingerprint, to trace how a particular sequencing is being spread between communities and individuals,” she notes.
She is the recipient of postdoctoral fellowships from Human Frontiers in Science Program and the Fondation pour la Recherche Médicale. Her work is also supported by the American Society for Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) Centennial Award.
Verge Genomics | Age: 32
Alice Zhang is the CEO and co-founder of Verge Genomics, which takes a genomics-driven approach to therapy development with an initial focus on central nervous system (CNS) disorders. Zhang, who left her M.D./Ph.D. program at UCLA behind to start Verge in 2015, says people often wonder how she had the courage to leave.
She credits an undergraduate mentor with helping her develop the mindset, as she wondered whether becoming a doctor was right for her. The mentor said: “Even if you don’t end up as a doctor, there’s no better way to find out than starting on that path.”
It’s a lesson that stuck. “The same advice is true for startups,” Zhang says. “The best way to find out if you have a good idea, you like being a founder, or if entrepreneurship is the right path for you, is just to take the first step.”
While she did not earn her doctorate at UCLA, her studies there using large-scale data, machine learning, and genomics to discover new drugs in neuroscience have certainly informed the direction she is taking with Verge.
“Instead of just publishing my work in academia, I wanted to turn it into something that could transform people’s lives—treatments for neurodegeneration,” Zhang says. “Alzheimer’s disease is one of the only top diseases with growing death rates in the last decade. Many drugs that initially looked promising in animal models didn’t pan out when put in humans. Eventually, I realized that we needed to start with humans in order to see new drugs succeed—which is what we do at Verge.”
Prior to Verge, Zhang spent seven years at the forefront of systems biology research at the National Cancer Institute, the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton University, and UCLA.