Celebrating Science: Hilo High graduate awarded highly competitive NIH funding

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We are proudly celebrating some of our JABSOM scientists this week as we welcome the National Diversity in STEM Conference to Hawaiʻi Nei

“When I was 17 I decided to dedicate my life to gene therapy research and have worked towards that goal,” said University of Hawaiʻi researcher Jesse Owens.

Exciting work on gene therapy is being carried out at the John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM). Jesse Owens, an Assistant Researcher at the Institute for Biogenesis Research (IBR), conducts cutting-edge research to improve tools that can deliver genetic material such as therapeutic genes to specific locations or sequences in the human genome.

“We want to pick the exact place to send our gene and we want to do it safely and efficiently,” Owens said. “Current methods have major drawbacks in safety. We hope that our new tools can fix that.”

In June 2019, Owens received a prestigious R21 award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), an important step in furthering his career. R21 grants support the early stages of exploratory and developmental research projects considered innovative and likely to have a major impact on the biomedical field. As Owens is developing a novel method of directing therapeutic genes to desired locations in the genome, his work has potential implications for treatment of any disease requiring gene replacement.

Owens earned a Ph.D. in Cell and Molecular Biology from the University of Hawaiʻi-Mānoa (UHM) in 2014. He also holds a B.S. in Molecular Cellular and Developmental Biology from the University of California–Santa Cruz (2007).

“I have always been fascinated by the fact that genes can be moved around to serve a purpose,” Owens explained. “When I was 17 I decided to dedicate my life to gene therapy research and have worked towards that goal.” He hopes to become a full professor at UH–Mānoa, publishing his research in high-impact journals: “I want to bring new useful tools to the field of genetic engineering.”

Owens was drawn to UH by Dr. Stefan Moisyadi’s research on transgenic animals and on transposons, “jumping genes” that can move to different locations within a genome. The work was ideally suited to Owens’ interest in gene delivery, and he joined Moisyadi’s lab to pursue his Ph.D. studies.

Owens appreciates the many colleagues who have contributed to his training and research efforts. “Dr. Steve Ward, director of the IBR, saw potential in me early on and has given me massive amounts of support as I began running my independent lab,” he recalled, noting that his post-doc Brian Hew and other personnel have also been essential to their collective success.

“Our lab was the first to show that a transposon can be delivered to the endogenous sequences in the genome,” Owens said. “We were also the first to show that a transposon can be sent to a custom sequence we choose using a TALE DNA binding protein. We are about to publish a new finding that RNA can be used to guide a transposon to a custom sequence.”

Owens grew up on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi and attended Hilo High School. He lists the Kohala Coast and Iceland as his favorite places. When not working, he engages in numerous outdoor activities that include sailing, surfing, hiking, scuba diving, and kayaking.