Boston Children's Researcher Spotlight:
Vijay Sankaran, MD, PhD, Principal Investigator in the Division of Hematology/Oncology
In this monthly showcase, TIDO highlights an up and coming researcher within the Boston Children's community by asking questions about their inspirations and research. This month, we had the pleasure of interviewing Vijay Sankaran, MD, PhD, Principal Investigator in the Division of Hematology/Oncology. Dr. Sankaran seeks to understand hematopoiesis and how this process goes awry in human disease.
Vijay Sankaran, MD, PhD
Q: What drives you as a scientist?
There are several things that drive the research in my laboratory. I am a physician-scientist and so many of the questions my lab pursues are directly influenced by patients we care for. Several years ago, I became fascinated with how my team could better treat patients diagnosed with sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia. This led us to pursue work that uncovered a key regulator of fetal hemoglobin expression, which can be used to treat sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia. We continue to pursue research in this area, as well as other problems that are of direct relevance to the patients we care for with other forms of anemia (low red blood cell counts). I find this connection to patients very enjoyable.
In addition, my lab is very interested in answering basic questions that will help us to better understand how cells differentiate. We aim to have a better understanding of how a stem cell becomes a particular blood cell, such as a red blood cell. This happens millions of times per second in our bodies and yet we only have a basic understanding of how this process occurs.
Q: Who influenced you the most as a scientist?
My patients have had a profound influence on the scientific work my group pursues. I have also been very fortunate to have some incredible mentors, both basic scientists and physician-scientists, who have influenced me. As a post-doctoral fellow, I received fantastic training from Eric Lander, who is the founding director of the Broad Institute, and Harvey Lodish at the Whitehead Institute. During this period of my training, I had a great deal of freedom to pursue ideas that have led to the work we are doing today. I received training and learned a great deal as a graduate student from Stuart Orkin here at Boston Children's. In addition, I have had a number of clinical mentors that have influenced the science we do including David Nathan and Sam Lux.
Q: What is unique about your research?
I vividly remember going to a symposium on blood cell production that was held many years ago when I was a first year medical student. A number of pioneers in the blood cell field were there, including Stuart Orkin, Leonard Zon, Irving Weissman and others. The great work being done in animal models of blood cell production, such as mice or zebrafish, inspired me to explore what more could be done. Soon after, I realized that using human genetics could be a powerful way to gain insight into blood cell production. There are relatively few labs that have expertise in studying blood cell production and human genetics. Following this path, we have identified important and unique regulators of blood cell production and diseases. Because we use insights from human samples, many of the problems we work on can be directly translated to potential applications in humans. We have identified key therapeutic targets in a number of genetic forms of anemia including sickle cell disease, beta-thalassemia and Diamond-Blackfan anemia. We are also developing improved methods to make red blood cells ex vivo as a potential transfusion replacement.
Q: What unmet needs does your research aim to solve?
My lab works on rare genetic forms of anemia, including sickle cell disease, beta-thalassemia and Diamond-Blackfan anemia, which are studied by only a few groups around the country. Through these studies, we have gained an understanding of how red blood cell production can go awry and are, now working on ways to improve red blood cell production in culture.